By Carlos E. De La Pena
Jonathon Simmons journey to earning a spot with the legendary franchise is a story worth telling. Simmons is a living testament that when one door closes you don’t give up. You go out and find another door to open. And another one. You might have to repeat the process until you’re in.
Simmons bounced around playing for junior colleges and into the University of Houston.
After going undrafted coming out of college in 2012, Simmons didn’t let that stop him from reaching the next level. He played one season for a semi-pro team in a Houston suburb but that wasn’t enough for the Texas native. He knew he had the skill set and the work ethic to make it.
He needed an opportunity. That opportunity came in the form of an open tryout for the Austin Spurs.
Simmons, a 6-foot-6 guard, joined about 60 other D-League aspiring players that each have a story of their own. Players with college experience mixed with rec league standouts that were ready to showcase their skill set and impress the organization.
Simmons earned a spot on the Austin Spurs at the end of the six hour long tenacious tryout.
After two full seasons with the Austin Spurs, Simmons is heading south I-35 to join the San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs have found players from the other side of the world and players like Danny Green and Gary Neal with a journey of their own that found development and an opportunity in the D-League.
“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.”
It sure has been worth it because Simmons captured MVP honors of the championship game in the Summer League Final this summer. The explosive guard easily won over Spurs fans with his accolade and with a couple of emphatic dunks that fueled the excitement over the new signee.
Out of nowhere, Simmons was sitting on the Brooklyn Nets team bus heading to a Summer League game in Orlando when his agent called to tell him that the Spurs had a contract offer.
He did what any other reasonable player would do and booked his flight to Vegas.
Twenty-four hours later Simmons took control of the Spurs’ Summer League team, leading the black and silver in scoring with 17 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists and a couple of highlight 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.”
The Austin Spurs hold tryouts in San Antonio and Austin every season, and Simmons was one of the attendees in 2013. It cost him $150 for the registration fee but it eventually turned into a two-year NBA contract. Not a bad investment Mr. Simmons.
The tryouts are filled with drills and scrimmages that challenge the attendees to impress the coaches. The tryouts last from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. Tryouts last about 6 hours, but Simmons didn’t need much time to raise some eyebrows.
“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.
Simmons transitioned from an open try out into sharing a locker room with Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, and Tony Parker. Ever heard of them? It’s an inspiring story when a player accomplishes such a feat that it has turned into stuff of movies a couple of times. However, this is not uncommon for players to earn their spot in the NBA using this 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 transitioned from an open try out to a roster spot. The tryouts are commonplace around the league as well.
“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 play for the University of Houston after transferring from Midland Junior College his sophomore year. 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, in hopes to providing for his family with an NBA contract.
After being undrafted, Simmons played for the Sugar Land Legends, a semi-pro team in the American Basketball League during the 2012-2013 season.
“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.”
During his last season with the Austin Spurs, Simmons was named to the NBA D-League All Defensive Third Team while appearing in all 50 games, averaging 15.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.00 steals in 33.8 minutes.
His outside shooting improved drastically as well, going from a 28.4 percent shooter (25 of 88) in 2013-14 to 39.8 percent (51 of 128) last season. An offensive stat that stood out after the Spurs lost Marco Belinelli to the Kings in free agency.
Simmons already has a loyal fan base that will upgrade their seats at the Cedar Park Center for seats at the renovated AT&T Center. The drive will be longer but worth it for the 12 or more friends and family members that would often travel 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 was sidelined watching three of his Austin teammates – Bryce Cotton (Utah), JaMychal Green (San Antonio, Memphis) and Jarell Eddie (Atlanta) – move up to the NBA. Instead of complaining, Simmons went back to the lab and kept pounding the rock as Pop would say.
“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’ cinderella story is far from over. He’s seen Danny Green’s success story and knows that its been a long road to earn a roster spot with the Spurs System but its only about to begin. Simmons said he’s ready for “everything Coach Pop can teach me.”
For Pauga and the Austin Spurs, it’s back to work keeping an eye out for talent that can be developed into an NBA player.
“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.”
Remember when one door closes theres another one waiting to get knocked on.