ORLANDO – In the weeks leading up to the NBA Draft where he is expected to become the first U.S.-born player in 13 years to be selected directly out of a prep school, Anfernee Simons has worked out for the Bulls, Suns, Trail Blazers, Jazz and Lakers and he even got to show off his skills in front of basketball legend Magic Johnson.
But no work out frazzled his nerves, opened his eyes or reminded him of the magnitude of the moment quite as much as the one that Simons went through on Saturday. For Simons, a native of suburban Orlando, the namesake of former superstar point guard Anfernee ``Penny’’ Hardaway and a lifelong Magic fan, simply walking onto his hometown team’s practice court at the Amway Center was breathtaking.
``It’s really a dream come true, to be honest,’’ said Simons, a native of Altamonte Springs who has dreamed of wearing a Magic uniform since first donning a Tracy McGrady model some 15 years ago. ``I got here (to the Amway Center) early, and I sat in here for like 10 straight minutes and I couldn’t even believe it. … The first shot I threw (up at the basket) was an air ball because I shot it way too hard. It took me a couple of shots to calm down and stuff. After I calmed down, I was fine the rest of the workout.’’
As much as Simons’ trek to this point seems to be storybook and akin to something out of a Hollywood script, the 6-foot-3, 183-pound guard is actually one of the biggest wildcards of the 2018 NBA Draft. Simons, who turned 19 years old on Friday, repeatedly passed up chances to play collegiately after wrapping up his prep career at Edgewater High School and instead opted for a year at IMG Academy in Bradenton.
Because he will be 19 years old and a full year out of high school by the June 21st NBA Draft, Simons is eligible to be selected. South Sudanese center Thon Maker, the 10th pick of the 2016 NBA Draft, followed a similar path after spending a year at a Canadian prep school. Current Magic forward Jonathan Isaac, last year’s No. 6 pick, contemplated skipping college and prepping at IMG Academy, before ultimately attending FSU prior to heading to the pros.
Simons, who transferred to national powerhouse Montverde for one season in the middle of his high school career, sees nothing unusual about the path that he has taken. The one-time five-star recruit, ranked in 2017 as the nation’s seventh best high school prospect by 247Sports.com, backed out of his commitment to Louisville after that school was hit with two scandals and he chose IMG over collegiate suitors Tennessee, Florida, South Carolina and N.C. State. The NBA has always been the plan and that’s where he’s most likely headed.
``I feel like it was pretty much a no-brainer to stay at IMG and finish out the year. Just take your time and go through the (college) recruiting process again, but obviously then the NBA stuff came along, and I had something else to think about,’’ said Simons, who could have played basketball in college after his stint at IMG if he so chose. ``Honestly, I don’t feel like this is a risk. I knew what I was getting myself into and I’m confident that I would be able to get to this moment and have my name called on June 21st. Playing basketball is no pressure for me.’’
Most mock drafts have Simons projected to be a mid-to-late first-round pick because of his ability to shoot the basketball from distance and create his own shots with his explosive ball-handling skills. He averaged 17.8 points and 4.6 assists as a high school sophomore and 23.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists as a senior at Edgewater High School.
The Magic, the team that Simons still refers to as ``we,’’ owns the sixth pick of the first round and Nos. 35 and 41 in the second round. For Simons to end up with his hometown team, Orlando would have to pick him much sooner than most expect, pull off a trade for a late-first-round pick or snag him early in the second round. Just the thought of potentially playing for the Magic causes Simons to have joyful visions dancing in his head.
``It would mean everything, honestly,’’ Simons said when asked what it would mean to be picked by the Magic. ``It would be a dream come true to come here and I feel like the whole city would be welcoming of me because I’m from here and I know everything about the city. That would be a dream come true, honestly, and I can’t even describe that in words.’’
As a child, Simons often asked his parents, Charles and Tameka, to put into words why they gave him the first name of Anfernee. He was named after Anfernee Hardaway, the Magic’s standout point guard from 1993-99 and later an inductee into the Magic Hall of Fame. Hardaway teamed with Shaquille O’Neal to help the Magic reach the 1995 NBA Finals and the ’96 East Finals while being a two-time first-team All-NBA selection – big shoes for a young Simons to try and fill.
``They said he was a good player,’’ said Simons of Hardaway, who he played for while staring for USA Basketball’s Under-19 National Team in 2017. ``(Hardaway) was probably the second-best player in the league next to Michael Jordan, so I feel like it was an honor.’’
In addition to working out Simons on Saturday, the Magic also got a look at Florida State’s Braian Angola-Rodas, Vermont’s Trae Bell-Haynes, Western Kentucky’s Darius Thompson, Oregon State’s Drew Eubanks and Mississauga Prep’s Matur Maker on Saturday. Despite his somewhat shaky start with the early air ball, Simons said he was able to put on a strong showing for the Magic.
``I think it went tremendous,’’ he boasted. ``I think I played well and I showed them everything that I can do and that I’m more of a player than people think I am.’’
Eventually, the teenaged Simons said NBA teams will see that he can hold his own against grown men a decade older than him. Simons started playing the game at Sanlando Park in Altamonte Springs – a short drive from the Magic’s Amway Center – and even though he never played collegiately, he’s convinced that he’s got what it takes to make it at the NBA level.
``It’s definitely going to be a challenge, but it’s a challenge I want to take on,’’ said Simons, who will work out for the Knicks, Cavaliers, Grizzlies and Bucks next week. ``I feel like I’ve been (working) to do this my whole life, so this is nothing to me, honestly.’’
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