Jonathon Simmons' Scenic Route
By: Lorne Chan Spurs.com
Jonathon Simmons walked into the Concordia University gym armed with a registration form and a little faith.
After going undrafted coming out of college in 2012, he spent a season playing for a semi-pro team in a Houston suburb.
His NBA chances were fading, but Simmons said knew he had the ability and work ethic to make it. He just needed someone to give him a chance.
The next option was an open tryout for the Austin Spurs.
Simmons, a 6-foot-5 guard, joined about 60 other D-League hopefuls at the September 2013 tryout. Players with college experience were scattered among rec league all-stars, running through six hours of drills.
Simmons earned a spot on the Austin Spurs that day. On Wednesday, after two full seasons in the D-League with Austin, he signed with the San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs have found players from the other side of the world. With Simmons, they signed a player who showed up at their front door.
“I definitely took the scenic route to get here,” he said. “I’ve been a late bloomer my whole life, I guess. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth it.”
Simmons has already made new fans with his Championship Game MVP performance in the Summer League Final on Monday. He scored 23 points in the Spurs’ 93-90 win over the Suns, capping off a whirlwind trip.
Simmons was sitting on the Brooklyn Nets team bus two weeks ago, heading to a Summer League game in Orlando. His agent called to tell him that the Spurs had a contract offer. Simmons hopped on a flight to Las Vegas and made an immediate impact with the Spurs’ Summer League team, leading the squad in scoring with 17 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists and a couple dunks a game.
“It’s still a shock to me,” Simmons said. “It’s just a humbling experience that I was able to get a contract, and now to win Summer League and be MVP. This is outstanding.”
It’s a long way from Simmons’ first day in a Spurs uniform two years ago.
The Austin Spurs hold tryouts in San Antonio and Austin every season, and Simmons was one of the hopefuls in 2013. He paid the $150 registration fee to try out with 60 other players that day.
Coaches put the hopefuls to work, with every candidate getting an opportunity to impress the organization in drills and scrimmages that went from 9 a.m. to about 3 p.m.
Not that Simmons needed much time to draw attention.
“It didn’t take long to see he was head and shoulders above the others in that tryout,” Austin Spurs general manager Brian Pauga said.
Going from an open tryout to the pros is the stuff of Disney, which has made baseball (“The Rookie”) and football (“Invincible”) movies about the subject. Meanwhile, the NBA version of the fairytale can actually be a useful path.
Simmons is the first player from the Spurs tryouts to sign more than a 10-day contract with the Spurs, but others have successfully used the open tryouts before.
Eric Dawson, a 6-9, 250-pound forward, went from an open tryout in 2007 to two 10-day stints with the Spurs in 2012, and most recently played professional basketball in Puerto Rico in 2015.
Terrance Woodbury, a 6-7 wing, was able to turn a tryout into two seasons with the Austin Spurs. The most recent tryout success story is 6-5 guard Devondrick Walker, who spent last season in Austin.
The tryouts are commonplace league-wide as well. Tim Ohlbrecht turned a 2012 tryout with the Bakersfield Jam into a contract with the Houston Rockets.
“The tryouts are an important piece of our team building in Austin,” Pauga said. “It is never something we’re just doing just to say we do it. We’ve always taken it very seriously.”
Simmons attended Smiley High School in North Houston and went on to the University of Houston. He was the Cougars' leading scorer in the 2011-12 season, averaging 14.7 points and five rebounds a game.
He declared for the NBA Draft before his senior season, saying that he hoped to provide for his family. When he went undrafted, Simmons wound up playing in 2012-13 for the Sugar Land Legends, a semi-pro team in the American Basketball League.
“I don’t know how many guys have gotten here from where I came from,” Simmons said. “It shows that anything is possible if you put in the work. Basketball has been a grind, and at the end of the day it humbled me and made me better.”
When he landed in Austin, Simmons averaged 9.8 points and 1.4 assists in 2013-14, playing 23.2 minutes per game. In 2014-15, his numbers jumped to 15.2 points and 3.7 assists in 33.7 minutes.
He was named to the D-League All-Defensive Third Team and his outside shooting improved dramatically as well, going from a 28.4 percent shooter (25 of 88) in 2013-14 to 39.8 percent (51 of 128) last season.
His cheering section also drew attention at the Cedar Park Center, as about 12 or more friends and family members would often make it up from Houston for Austin Spurs games.
“My mom hasn’t stopped crying since she found out I was going to make it to the NBA,” Simmons said. “I told her not to tell anybody, and then she went ahead and told everybody.”
Last season, Simmons watched three of his Austin teammates – Bryce Cotton (Utah), JaMychal Green (San Antonio, Memphis) and Jarell Eddie (Atlanta) – get NBA call-ups. He never asked why he wasn’t among them. Instead, he cheered them on and kept going to work.
“I never took anything as a negative,” Simmons said. “Those were my teammates. I just hoped that I was next and kept a positive attitude that something would work out.”
Simmons’ fairytale is far from over. He’s seen Danny Green’s success from the D-League to the Spurs, and Simmons said he’s ready for “everything Coach Pop can teach me.”
For Pauga and the Austin Spurs, it’s back to work looking for another gem at this year’s open tryouts.
“Jonathon listened to coaches and worked,” Pauga said “He’s the epitome of the type of player you want to see come out of the D-League. And it’s a reminder that every time you step in the gym, someone is watching.”