For Spurs' Jonathon Simmons, perseverance pays off

Fran Blinebury

On the season’s opening night, he came from way behind for a block that likely had Stephen Curry twitching with flashbacks of LeBron James in The Finals.

This week at Washington just before a monster, one-handed, put-back slam, he ran down poor ol’ Marcus Thornton for another of those where-did-he-come-from rejections that leaves the victim looking for the license number of that truck.

At 27, Jonathon Simmons may have gotten a late start, but he’s closing ground fast in an NBA career that even he admits he did not see coming.

Not long before the Spurs signed the 6-foot-6 shooting guard to a two-year contract in the summer of 2015, Simmons was close to giving up the chase and getting on with real life.

“Yeah, it’s just being human and facing reality,” Simmons said. “Having no sense of security, not knowing where is your life. What is your future going to be? It’s nice and all to be playing basketball, but there are responsibilities.”

Those would be his five kids — four girls and a boy — that had him contemplating getting a 9-to-5 job.

“It would hit me from time to time,” he said. “How long do you go on? How far do you go with this? You have doubts. But I have positive people around me in my circle that saw something in me that I didn’t and wouldn’t let me give it up just yet. So I hung in and got through it.”

Not that it was anywhere as simple and easy as that.

Simmons came out of Smiley High in Houston and played two years at Paris (Tx.) Junior College and Midland (Tx.) College before one season in Division I at the University of Houston. He entered the 2012 NBA draft, wasn’t chosen and didn’t have a plan or a clue what to do next.

Europe wasn’t an option.

“I just wasn’t ready,” Simmons said. “I wasn’t up to date with the whole situation overseas and I had three daughters at the time and wasn’t ready to leave them or anything like that. I was a kid from the north side (of Houston), just playing basketball for fun. I was just kind of doing it because I became good at it.”

In January of 2013, he signed on with the Sugar Land (Tx.) Legends of the now-defunct American Basketball League, first coached by Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy and then his son Calvin Jr.

“He was our star,” Murphy said. “I think it took one game for Calvin Jr. to get a look and then told me right away: ‘He don’t belong here. This boy’s got NBA material.’

“I knew the name from the University of Houston,” Murphy said. “But I didn’t really know who he was and then we’re watching him go out there in this ABL little league and he was head and shoulders above everybody. There had to be path, a way to get him to the NBA.”

The path took Simmons to paying $150 for a tryout with the Austin Toros (now Spurs) of the NBA Development League and two more seasons of toiling.

“Oh man, the D-League, it’s a grind,” Simmons said with a sigh and a grin. “Especially when you don’t have anything. You have to find a way to stay focused and try to keep looking at the bigger picture. A lot of guys there, they try to live beyond their means and not do what’s necessary for their future. I had those kids at home. I had me plus the right people in my ear. People helped me along the way and kept telling me it was possible.”

He played for the Nets at the Orlando Summer League in 2015 and was supposed to go with them to Las Vegas. But the Spurs stepped in with an offer for Simmons to join their team instead and he eventually was named MVP of the championship game in Las Vegas, then two days later signed his deal with the Spurs.

That sent a 26-year-old rookie into his first NBA training camp in an era when the league is constantly getting younger.

“It was definitely strange,” Simmons said. “I was one of the oldest rookies when I got into the league last year. I had guys in camp joking about my age, calling me the old man. But I don’t care about none of that. I’m just here to play basketball.”

He played in 55 games for the Spurs last season and now is a part of the regular rotation, using his length, athleticism, speed and instincts to make an impact at both ends of the floor.

“He sees things, the second or third iteration,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “You can see the first guy that’s open, but sometimes he sees something else developing on the floor. That’s hard to coach. I don’t know if you can coach it. It’s just a natural affinity for that part of the game, and he has that.”

Simmons is averaging 5.8 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists and had breakout games such as the 20 points at Golden State on opening night and 15 points (on 5-for-6 shooting) and that eye-popping, run-down block of Thornton on Monday night.

Some guys have a knack for coming out of nowhere. Some have always been there, grinding for the chance to show they belong.

“I’m glad I didn’t quit on this,” Simmons said.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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