Before the soaring dunks and improbable investment from a cornerstone NBA franchise, Jonathon Simmons had been playing pro-am games, participating in chorus music and playing drums at his local church. For all of the pathways toward crime and violence in his hometown of Houston, Simmons had his voice and drum sticks. He calls himself a “1-percenter” who embraced the church to avoid the wreckage surrounding him.
Simmons is 27 now, earning every last second of playing time from San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. He bounced from junior college to junior college, landing at the University of Houston, and found his break in the NBA Development League and Summer League. Looking back, if the D-League salvaged his basketball career, Simmons believes his direction as a child may have saved his life.
“I was still able to run into trouble as a kid, but singing and playing the drums at church saved me and still keeps me humble,” Simmons told The Vertical. “That kept me out of the trouble and kept me grounded. I always reach back into what I learned growing up. Basketball was a late bloom for me. I always played growing up, but actually having the inspiration to play at a high level was later in my life.
“I didn’t have college aspirations. I got my first college letter going into my senior year. Me and my mom said, ‘What is this?’ I didn’t even know.
“I’m part of the 1 percent in my area. We were in a rough part of town. I’m the only one who’s played at this high level. I never thought this would be possible, wearing this Spurs jersey. It is possible.”
In the lobby of the Spurs’ team hotel during a recent road trip, the journey is still surreal for Simmons. He scored 20 points in a rout over Golden State on opening night, the starting point to a season of electric dunks and his emergence as a solid two-way wing player. “Those dunks are the gritty and park basketball that I’ve grown up with,” said Simmons, who’s averaging 5.9 points and 2.1 rebounds in 18.8 minutes per game. “I always had the ferociousness. I needed to have that dog [aggressiveness] to prove something to everyone.”
Surrounded by several family members during a recent off day before a nationally televised game, they reflected about helping “Sims” spend the summer of 2013 playing in a local Houston league with former NBA forward Von Wafer. The prize was a couple hundred dollars, and Simmons says at that time he came close to abandoning basketball as his primary source of income to find a 9-to-5 job.
But he realized he needed to stay the course. The three-a-day workouts in Houston continued, and Simmons’ close friends made sure he clocked in and clocked out. “There’s no difference between going at 5 a.m. or 12 p.m., but it takes a level of discipline and mindset that you need to have to wake up at 5 and go do it again at 12 and then do it again at night,” Simmons said. “We’re hungry, and I had people around having the perseverance with me.”
He was a raw prospect, an unrefined athlete learning basketball nuance who expected to become another cautionary tale. He had brothers and sisters and four daughters, and his path wasn’t obvious or easy.
Out of M.B. Smiley High School in northeast Houston, he played at Paris Junior College and Midland College before landing at Houston, where he left with one year of eligibility remaining. He landed a roster spot in the American Basketball League, but his season ended early because of the league’s financial issues, so he returned home unemployed again.
In 2013, he mustered the $150 tryout fee for the Spurs’ D-League affiliate in Austin and made the roster. Once Simmons arrived to Austin’s training camp, he embraced the structure, and his work ethic and drive increased. His grasp of the game began to match his surplus leaping ability. And yet, Simmons could not land on a summer roster in 2014. “That was mind-boggling to me,” he said.
Spurs general manager R.C. Buford and his scouting staff pinpointed Simmons in 2015, and after an impressive run with Brookyn in the Orlando Summer League he was signed to a fully guaranteed one-year deal.
Simmons’ leash can be short at times, because he is playing behind a veteran group in Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili Danny Green, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, but has given the team an infusion of youth and speed.
“In San Antonio, you have to really work for what you want. It’s not going to be given to you; it’s not going to be given to me,” Simmons told The Vertical. “It is difficult at times. Sometimes, as a player, you don’t understand. Why is Coach Pop at me like this? Is it to make me better, or are you just talking [expletive] to me? Sometimes, I didn’t know. I always try to work hard, and I think they’ve seen that I’m one of the hardest-working guys on the team. It’s benefited me.
“Once I got into the Spurs’ system, I never had the mindset that I had to give up. Before I came, I wondered about giving up and starting all over again. I showed that I could play though. I showed athleticism that a lot of guys don’t even have when they get opportunities.”
Simmons has produced his share of highlight moments, but there have also been errant passes and a missed slam in Chicago. “The park ball in me comes out,” he said, smiling. Yet the messages from Popovich have remained consistent.
“I was working out this season, and Pop comes up to me, ‘Stay low, be ready at all times, no soft play, be a dog all the time.’ And then he just walked out of the gym,” Simmons said. “It’s a different type of motivation. I’m used to motivation like that. The weak cannot play for Pop. You have to have a strong mind and just know that he expects greatness.”
Phoenix coach Earl Watson, one of Simmons’ assistant coaches during the wing’s time in Austin, once called Simmons the greatest story in the NBA. He’ll enter free agency in July in a league that’s in demand for quality wing players who can score and defend multiple positions.
“Just to sit here and have the conversation that I’m going to be up for free agency … three, four years ago I was talking about if I was even going to have a job,” Simmons told The Vertical. “There were always doubts. There were always doubters. My heart is in San Antonio; they gave me my first shot. It’s about the bigger picture. I do what’s asked for me.
“I’m not where I want to be [in my career], but I’m where I am comfortable. I can sleep a little better, but I’m not at the highest level of myself yet. I work my ass off and live with the outcomes.”
The drum beats on for Jonathon Simmons.
More NBA coverage from The Vertical: