By: Lorne Chan Spurs.com
Jonathon Simmons' Rise
When Jonathon Simmons walked into an Austin gym three years ago, he was one of 60 guys refusing to give up on a dream.
The Austin Toros held an open tryout at Concordia University in September 2013, where the requirements were a $150 registration fee and an accurate size for a souvenir jersey.
Some in attendance had pro experience, while others played their most competitive games in a neighbor’s driveway. Simmons was a relative unknown, with a resume that contained one season of Division I basketball and a few semi-pro games.
The open tryout is a place where everybody has been told no before. They are participants who have been told at some point that they might be better off giving up on basketball.
They find themselves at a D-League open tryout because they refuse to believe what they’ve been told.
“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, trying to figure out a way to stand out.”
Three years later, Simmons is a 26-year-old NBA rookie for the Spurs. He heard a chant from the crowd in Milwaukee during a January game:
“Who Are You? Who Are You?”
Simmons responded with a career-high 18 points.
Spurs fans have gotten to know Simmons this season as a key member of the “Juice Unit,” the Silver & Black reserves who make up one of the best benches in the NBA.
A 6-foot-6 guard, he’s averaging 5.7 points per game with an array of high-flying highlights as he nears the end of his rookie season. His improbable path from an unknown at an open tryout to the NBA may be the ultimate leap.
“This is one of those stories you see in a movie, but this is not somebody else’s story. I’m looking at the TV, and that is my child on the screen.” – LaTonya Simmons
A year ago, Simmons was scraping by to earn diaper money for his children. Now, Simmons has an NBA contract and the NBA per diem alone –money players receive for meals on the road – is more than he made playing basketball before this season.
“I still can’t believe this,” said his mother, LaTonya Simmons. “This is one of those stories you see in a movie, but this is not somebody else’s story. I’m looking at the TV, and that is my child on the screen.”
Count LaTonya among those who weren’t sure about her son’s basketball future.
She saw him toil in 2012-13 with the Sugar Land Legends, a suburban semi-pro team in Houston. He’d score 30 or 40 points a game, but in front of sparse crowds for little or no pay. With nobody watching, calls weren’t coming in for Simmons to further his career.
LaTonya had a fallback career in mind for him. As a barber.
“He’s pretty good at cutting hair, and he would have built up a nice clientele,” LaTonya said. “I told him a few times in the offseason he should think about getting his barber’s license. Basketball turns out to be better than cutting hair.”
A tryout in Austin might have been Simmons’ last shot at pro basketball. With daughters to support at home, the barber’s chair was the viable option. Simmons was closer to holding clippers than facing the Clippers.
Tryouts are a key part of building a roster for the now-Austin Spurs. The entire coaching staff runs participants through six hours of drills, with San Antonio Spurs scouts and staff members in attendance as well. According to Brian Pauga, the Austin Spurs’ general manager and San Antonio Spurs’ director of scouting, it only took a few minutes to see that Simmons was “head and shoulders” above everybody else trying out.
“We saw an athlete who could really finish plays,” Pauga said. “He clearly had so much talent, but the work he put in since that day is why he is where he is now.”
Simmons was a raw talent at the tryout, having bounced around at two junior colleges and the University of Houston. He grew up in Houston’s northeast side, attending what was then called M.B. Smiley High.
Simmons went to class enough to stay eligible for basketball, but there was little else for motivation at Smiley.
During Simmons’ senior year in 2007-08, a Johns Hopkins study labeled Smiley as a “dropout factory,” a school where at least 40 percent of a freshman class doesn’t get to their senior year.
Smiley was rated “academically unacceptable” by the Texas Education Agency, and it’s school district, North Forest, recorded an average SAT score - 748 out of 1600 – that was one of the worst in Texas.
In 2013, the TEA shut down North Forest ISD, and the Houston ISD absorbed the entire school district.
“Jonathon was a good kid,” LaTonya said, “But there aren’t many kids in this neighborhood who are given a chance. He always had a dream of the NBA, but you got the feeling that it might be unreachable.”
LaTonya was doing all that she could to raise her four kids; Jonathon, the oldest, his younger brother and two sisters. LaTonya has worked at Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport for almost 20 years now, doing everything from working at check-in to taking boarding passes for United Airlines. She sent tens of thousands of people off on their dream vacations, without taking a trip of her own.
Raising four children on her own, LaTonya didn’t have any time or money for a vacation. Working shifts that bled into dinnertime, LaTonya would take the four kids to McDonald’s, where they had their choice of $3 worth of items off the Dollar Menu.
“I still like the Dollar Menu though, no matter how much I’m making,” Jonathon said.
LaTonya is still working at the airport, where she’s added a mini-Spurs ball to the antennae of her walkie-talkie. She said strangers come up to her every day talking about her son.
“Some people will just yell ‘Go Spurs Go!’ from down the hall,” LaTonya said. “Whenever I get that, and I tell my son’s story, it makes you think about how many people work their whole lives for goals, but they get so close and it seems so far. Jonathon had obstacles and setbacks, but he stayed focused.”
"I didn’t want him to fall into the category of a guy who should have made it.” – James Dickey, Simmons’ coach at the University of Houston
Jonathon graduated from Smiley and attended junior colleges – one year at Paris Junior College and two years at Midland JC – as he worked toward qualifying for a Division I school.
Staying close to home, he attended the University of Houston for his junior season. He led the Cougars in scoring, averaging 14.7 points and 5.0 rebounds per game.
Rather than return for his senior season, Simmons opted to enter into the 2012 NBA Draft. Houston coach Wayne Dickey said he advised against it, but Simmons was determined to declare.
He had another motivating factor: providing for his three daughters.
Simmons believed he was ready and had a chance to support his children. Others weren’t so sure.
"I didn’t want him to fall into the category of a guy who should have made it,” said Dickey, who is now an assistant at Oklahoma State. “We all loved coaching him. His heart was always in the right place, and he always wanted to do what’s best. But we didn’t know what was going to happen.“
Simmons went undrafted and was without a backup plan. He said he didn’t know about his D-League or overseas basketball options at the time.
“That was maybe the time that I really doubted myself the most,” he said. “I was seeing guys that I played against in college get drafted and go to Summer League, and I had nothing. I felt like I could have played at that level back then, but I had no options.”
Simmons took the first paying gig he could find playing basketball, and it was with the semi-pro Sugar Land Legends.
He was easily the best player on the floor, but playing in high school gyms, Simmons realized how far from the NBA he was.
He needed any sort of way to stand in front of a professional coach and show what he had to offer. There happened to be a team in Austin taking a look at all comers.
“The D-League really lights a fire under you.” – Danny Green
The Austin Spurs have signed players out of open tryouts before. Forward Eric Dawson, who grew up a couple of miles away from the AT&T Center, spent parts of four seasons in Austin and earned a 10-day contract with the San Antonio Spurs in 2012. Wing Terrance Woodbury and guard Devondrick Walker have also turned their tryouts into Austin Spurs contracts.
With Simmons, Austin coaches knew he had the potential to be the best player they had seen in a tryout. Now, they had to get to work.
“The D-League really lights a fire under you,” said Spurs guard Danny Green, one of five players on the team with D-League experience. “You see what it takes to make it to the NBA and how many great players in the D-League are next to you gunning for those same spots. A lot of guys should experience that.”
Before he arrived in Austin, Simmons had never spent more than one season in any system.
“He used to just put his head down and try to jump over you, and that’s just not life in the NBA,” said Austin Spurs coach Ken McDonald. “When he learned to see the floor in our system, from there he took off.”
Austin Spurs coaches sit down with players at the beginning of each season, and map out a list of goals, working on strengths and weaknesses. For Simmons, defense and outside shooting were underlined.
He averaged 10 points a game for Austin in 2013-14, and his first season in the D-League opened up some options overseas as well. Simmons decided to stay in Austin for another year, because he didn’t want to be an ocean away from his family, which now included four daughters.
“When you’re evaluating players, you’re also evaluating their character,” Austin Spurs coach Ken McDonald said. “In our notes on Jonathon, we made sure to put that whenever he had some spare time on the road, he was on FaceTime with his daughters.”
As Simmons returned to Houston for another offseason, the doubts began to creep back. Nights in Bakersfield and Boise wore him down and the NBA calls hadn’t come yet.
“I tried to limit doubt as much as possible,” Simmons said. “You have to try to stay positive and go from there. Coaches kept telling me that I had to have faith.”
In his second Austin season, 2014-15, Simmons reached those underlined goals. His work ethic was second to none, and his 3-point percentage jumped from .284 (25 of 88) in his first season to .398 (51 of 128). He was named to the D-League All-Defensive Third Team.
But Simmons watched as teammates JaMychal Green, Bryce Cotton and Jarell Eddie all received call-ups, and he didn’t. Simmons said he was proud of his teammates at the time, but the situation was even difficult for McDonald to handle.
“All these guys around him are leaving the nest, and we don’t understand why he isn’t getting called up either,” McDonald said. “He was doing all the right things. But we had to just preach to him that he was right there.”
The call finally came in July 2015, while Simmons was on the bus with Brooklyn’s summer league team. His agent called to tell him the Spurs were prepared to offer his first NBA contract.
The dream once thought as unreachable was now a reality. Simmons would never have to think about being a barber again. He won’t have to worry about scrounging money for diapers.
“It’s surreal and also humbling at the same time,” Simmons said. “The process was a grind, and I don’t take any part of it for granted. It was a humbling experience, and now I enjoy this part even more.”
One of his first calls was to LaTonya, who said she spent the entire night in shock. Simmons joined the Spurs’ Summer League team in Las Vegas and celebrated with a championship game MVP trophy as the Spurs won the tournament.
“I tried to limit doubt as much as possible. You have to try to stay positive and go from there. Coaches kept telling me that I had to have faith.” – Jonathon Simmons
Simmons said he feels his journey is just beginning. He’s still an NBA rookie, after all. He’s scored in double figures eight times this season, providing a valuable jolt of energy off the bench.
“He just dives into the game, and he competes,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s really got great athletic skills, and he’s a quick learner, a good worker. So he’s got a chance to be a long-time player in the league if he pays attention and sticks to it.”
Going from an open tryout to the NBA, there’s one part of his new life Simmons is still trying to grasp. He often runs into people on the street who tell him he’s an inspiration.
Simmons thought of himself as a guy grinding away, who took the long way to his professional dream. He was a guy trying to support his four children.
He never thought about what people would think when he made it.
“People say it’s inspiring, but I still don’t see it,” he said. “I just had to work a little harder than others.”
In February, LaTonya Simmons was on the other side of the airport counter. After 18 years of long shifts to provide for her four kids, she flew to Los Angeles for a quick vacation.
She did a little sightseeing before she went to the Staples Center, where her son faced the Clippers.