Three years ago, Jonathon Simmons played for a team called the Sugar Land Legends, in a semi-pro league you’ve never heard of, whose season was interrupted halfway through due to 10 teams having financial crises.
On opening day of the 2016-2017 NBA season, Simmons played 28 minutes against the Golden State Warriors and Stephen Curry, and did this.
How the hell did Simmons get here?
Jonathon Simmons dominated everywhere he went.
In high school in Houston where students dropped out alarmingly often, Simmons was the co-MVP in his district. During his freshman year at Paris Junior College, Simmons earned all-conference honors. When Simmons transferred to Midland College the next year, he was named to the all-region team. When he transferred to the University of Houston, Simmons played himself onto an all-tournament team and won a Conference USA Player of the Week award.
Still, despite a good season at Houston, nothing Simmons did earned him more than a glance from NBA teams. He was playing good basketball, but so do a hundred others at these lower college levels.
The stint with the Sugar Land Legends — part of the semi-professional American Basketball League, which has a website that doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2015 — came next. Despite the mid-season stoppage, Simmons averaged nearly 37 points in 16 games. But it’s not much of a surprise that the American Basketball League wasn’t scouted much. Or at all, ever. Simmons had to find another way to get noticed.
So Simmons tried out for the D-League — and it worked.
In an open D-League tryout which he paid $150 to even participate in, Simmons became a professional basketball player. The Austin Toros (now the Austin Spurs), affiliated with the San Antonio Spurs, signed him for the 2013-14 season after he stood out from the 100 other players trying out that day.
In 44 games as a D-League rookie, Simmons was good, but he was still far from the next level, averaging just 10 points and four rebounds. He considered quitting basketball during the next season, in his second stint in the D-League, to care for his four daughters living back in Houston. “I was just gonna wing it,” he told NBA.com. But he quickly realized something was different, and NBA teams were noticing him. Simmons finished the year scoring 15 points a game and being named to the All-Defensive Third Team.
Finally, a summer league performance made sure Jonathon Simmons would make the NBA.
The Nets were the first team interested in Simmons playing summer league during 2014 — but when the Spurs offered him a spot on their Las Vegas squad, Simmons immediately dropped his commitment to Brooklyn in favor of the team he played two D-League seasons for. Simmons’ summer league was fantastic, and he was named Championship Game MVP when the Summer Spurs’ unit won the Las Vegas tournament. He signed a contract with San Antonio just two days later.
Last season, Simmons averaged 15 minutes in his 55 games played, with some bright spots mixed in with time spent out of the rotation. He’s a 27-year-old now — not a bright rising star, or someone who will be a future centerpiece of the Spurs. But he busted his ass to get here, nearly giving up along the way, and now he’s in the rotation for what might be the third-best team in the NBA. And beyond blocking the reigning MVP, he scored 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting on Friday while helping hand the Golden State Warriors a loss to open the season.
The Spurs will get some credit for Simmons. They found him, after all — signed him to their D-League squad, groomed him, and brought him in two years ago. San Antonio has an amazing track record at finding players like this, after all. But praising the Spurs shouldn’t (and doesn’t have to!) come at the expense of Simmons. He turned himself into a player who finally made it in the NBA. Into a player who could do this against the most anticipated superteam of all time.
That’s one hell of a journey from a guy playing semi-pro three years ago. And you can bet Simmons isn’t leaving any of it behind now.