Jonathon Simmons signed up for an Austin Spurs open tryout three years ago and had an audition that changed his life.
He went from the D-League to the San Antonio Spurs, where Simmons is about to begin his second season in the NBA.
On Saturday, 110 basketball players showed up to the Round Rock Sports Center, chasing the same dream that came true for Simmons. Players of all ages and experience levels tried out for Austin and San Antonio Spurs coaches and scouts, running through drills and scrimmages.
Austin Spurs coach Ken McDonald said Saturday’s tryout was the biggest group he’s seen yet, which may be a testament to Simmons’ success story.
“Jonathon came from this spot and has been a part of our group ever since,” said Austin Spurs general manager Andy Birdsong. “And the thing is there are many stories like his coming out of the D-League. It’s a real story. It’s one that’s tangible. And it gives the guys here a lot of hope.”
The players at Saturday’s tryout ranged from some who didn’t play college basketball to overseas professionals. Australia, Poland and China were among the countries that popped up as past experience for some tryout applications.
What all the players have in common is that they’ve been told “no” before, that they weren’t good enough for the NBA. And they refuse to give up.
As the D-League continues to grow, the path to the NBA has become clear. At the end of the 2015-16 NBA season, 39 percent of players on NBA rosters had D-League experience.
Simmons was coming off a stint with the Sugar Land Legends, a suburban semi-pro team in Houston when he arrived at the 2013 tryout. At that point, he considered giving up basketball and thought about becoming a barber.
He impressed coaches at the tryout and earned a contract with the Austin Spurs. After two seasons in Austin developing his game, Simmons made the leap to the NBA, where he averaged 6.0 points and 1.7 rebounds as a 26-year-old rookie.
“I try to focus on moving forward, but I still think back to that tryout all the time,” Simmons said. “Walking in with all those guys, and trying to figure out a way to stand out.”
Another tryout tale is Eric Dawson, who attended high school at Sam Houston, just two miles away from the AT&T Center. Dawson played college basketball at Midwestern State, a small school in Wichita Falls, Texas with an address unfamiliar to most NBA scouts.
Dawson, a 6-foot-9 forward, didn’t get any calls from the NBA, but he didn’t think he was done with basketball, either. He attended the Austin Toros tryout in 2007. He impressed coaches, performed well in Austin, and five years later, he had a four-game stint in San Antonio.
Nine years after his open tryout, Dawson is still in professional basketball and signed with the Utah Jazz on Friday.
“We’re always looking for Spurs characteristics,” McDonald said. “Obviously the athleticism and talent has to be there, but we want to see guys who play team basketball, are serious about defense, and understand concepts that we’re throwing at them. Sometimes, we find that needle in the haystack.”
The Austin Spurs will turn in five names from the tryouts to the D-League, and they are all offered a D-League contract. They are then eligible for the Oct. 30 D-League draft, where they may be selected by any of the league’s 22 teams.
After the draft, tryout players also have a chance to join a team’s training camp roster.
The Austin Spurs’ season begins at home on Nov. 13 against Oklahoma City. For tickets to home games at the Cedar Park Center, visit AustinSpurs.com
“This process has bared a lot of fruit in a guy like Jon Simmons and a lot of other guys who have made it to training camp through the tryout,” McDonald said. “We take it very seriously because it has worked for us.”
Some players at this year’s tryout were introduced to coaches when they turned in their registration forms on Saturday morning. Others, such as forward Alexis Wangmene, are quite familiar.
Spurs general manager R.C. Buford brought Wangmene to Texas more than 10 years ago, when he met the Cameroon native on a Basketball Without Borders trip.
Wangmene went on to play at the University of Texas, the Spurs in the 2012 and 2013 Summer Leagues, and was with the Austin Spurs (then the Toros) in the 2012-13 season. He has since played overseas, most recently in Poland.
On Saturday, he was trying out for the Austin Spurs just like everybody else. He said it was the first tryout of his life.
“I’ve been playing overseas and wanted to come back, and this is where you start,” Wangmene said. “Jonathon Simmons gives hope for every single player here today. We’re all motivated by it. His story really does show that anything is possible.”
Under the “anything is possible” category, Osamu Abe, a player from Japan, made the Austin tryout his second of four D-League tryouts this season. Abe once played for the Japanese national team and is trying to reach the NBA at the age of 46.
“I believe the NBA is my final destination,” said Abe, whose nickname back home is ‘Dinosaur Samu.’ “If I make it, it would be a Guinness World Record.”
Aside from Simmons, current Spurs who have played in the D-League include Danny Green, Patty Mills, Kyle Anderson and Dewayne Dedmon.
The Spurs became the second NBA team to own a D-League franchise when they bought the Austin Spurs in 2007. The Spurs immediately began molding Austin’s philosophy after themselves, and one show of the importance of Austin to the San Antonio was an Austin Spurs game played at the AT&T Center last season.
Since the D-League launched with eight teams in 2001-02, NBA teams have quickly recognized the value of an affiliate. When the 2016-17 D-League season begins there will be 22 teams, including three new franchises. All are now linked with an NBA affiliation.
“It’s a really exciting time for our league and for the NBA,” Birdsong said. “Our talent is going to keep getting better and better, and it’s going to improve the pool of talent in the NBA.”