There were 100 bodies in the gym, scrapping, fighting, trying to impress. In the tangle of arms and legs, one player stood out. He stood 6-foot-6 and showed he could defend, rebound and score. Austin Toros coaches liked what they saw and extended a rare invitation to Jonathon Simmons.
In November, Simmons became the first player to make the Toros through an open tryout in two years. He leaped from nowhere -- Sugarland Legends of the American Basketball League -- to the NBA’s Development League to posting an impressive double-double in his 22nd game: 23 points and 17 rebounds in a 123-116 loss to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
“He’s a very exciting prospect,” says Toros coach Ken McDonald. “He’s big, extremely athletic, aggressive. He’s got a lot of tools to work with. We think the sky’s the limit for him.”
If the name does not sound familiar, it’s because Simmons has played in obscurity for most of his life. He never considered basketball beyond high school in Houston until a serendipitous growth spurt at 16 turned heads. “I went from 5-7, 5-8 to 6-3 in about three or four months,” Simmons recalls.
His game grew with his body. His confidence soared. There were more questions about Simmons’ school -- M.B. Smiley High -- than his skill set. A Johns Hopkins University study designated the school a “dropout factory,” a facility where at least 40 percent of freshmen do not reach their senior year.
The school was featured in a 2005 TV film, “Fighting The Odds: The Marilyn Gambrell Story,” which shows how a former parole officer helped Smiley students who had been raped, sexually harassed and beaten. The parole officer, Gambrell, started a program designed to help children of incarcerated parents from going to prison.
Some students made progress. The school did not. In 2008, Smiley merged with a second school and became known as North Forest High. Academic and financial problems, however, caused the closure of the North Forest Independent School District in 2013.
“It’s kind of hard to make it out of the area,” Simmons says.
He didn’t think he would make it out of high school. Simmons recalls skipping, watching television at home. Money was tight. Food scarce. “I almost dropped out,” he says. “I never had the ambition that I was going to play college or pro basketball.”
His grandmother pushed him to stay in school, to work on his game, to become a success. When she died, his motivation to finish school waned.
It helped when he shot past 6-4 as a senior. It helped when SMU wrote him a letter. It helped when Texas A&M showed interest, when Marquette coach Buzz Williams flew in to visit Simmons at his high school. Simmons pressed on but remained a mostly under-the-radar player. He played one year at Paris Junior College, another at Midland College.
Simmons says he missed graduating by one class, which forced him to sit out the 2010-11 season.
He averaged almost 15 points the following season at the University of Houston, left school and went undrafted. He averaged 36.5 points for Sugarland in the ABL, worked out for the Spurs and attended a Toros tryouts in a San Antonio gym.
“He stood above most with his speed and athleticism,” McDonald says. “He’s a good defender, a good rebounder, has good length. He came in with a good approach and attitude. He’s coachable.”
On an ever-changing roster with players moving up and down from the NBA, Simmons has had to learn patience. He scored four points in his D-League debut. In his second game, though, Simmons scored 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds in 32 minutes against Santa Cruz.
“He has his moments,” McDonald says. “When you are Jonathan, you have to wait your turn. We have other players with a lot of experience. In tight games, it can be frustrating. But when he gets his opportunities, he makes athletic plays.”
Eight years ago, Simmons didn’t know if he would finish high school. He can’t recall looking up to any role models from his neighborhood. But now that he’s playing pro ball, he hopes to become one for the younger kids, watching back home.