You've heard it before. A 20-something prospect shows promising signs during summer-league play, carving up second-rate defenses like they're ice sculptures and subsequently becoming an exaggerated and oversized blip on league radar. Half of them disappear in short order, eventually lost among a galaxy of superior professional talent.
But Jonathan Simmons may be different.
That much is evidenced by the San Antonio Spurs' decision to offer him a two-year minimum contract amid his stint with the Brooklyn Nets at Orlando Summer League. The 25-year-old Houston native had spent two seasons with the Spurs' NBA Development League affiliate, the Austin Toros, but San Antonio's pursuit still came as a surprise.
"It was kind of shocking," Simmons said in July, per the San Antonio Express-News' Jeff McDonald. "It came out of nowhere."
The Spurs do that sometimes, apparently finding solutions where no one else was looking. It's become a staple of the organization's (often international) draft approach, and it's yielded a roster comprised largely of late first- and second-round selections, to say nothing of successful reclamation projects such as Danny Green and Boris Diaw.
Could Simmons be the next emergent story, an undrafted castaway who suddenly finds himself in an ideal situation? Early evidence on that front is nothing short of enticing.
Simmons capped off a series of impressive summer-league outings by walking away with the championship game's MVP award, recognition for a 23-point effort against the talented Phoenix Suns.
In seven Vegas appearances with the Spurs, he averaged 17 points, four rebounds and three assists per contest. That kind of production is pretty consistent with his output in Austin, where he tallied 15.2 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game last season.
Simmons also made 39.8 percent of his three-point attempts during the 2014-15 campaign, and his shooting isn't even the exciting part.
"The first thing that jumps out is his athleticism," said Spurs assistant and summer-league coach Becky Hammon, per McDonald. "Overall, the Spurs are not really known for athleticism. He certainly brings that to the table."
Teammate and 2014 first-round selection Kyle Anderson agreed when reacting to one of Simmons' several remarkable summer-league dunks.
"That’s Simms," Anderson added, per McDonald. "Super athletic. I think once he learns our system and our principles, he can be good."
That system—and the coaches who orchestrate it—should do wonders for Simmons. The Spurs have long had luck building players from the ground up, finding talent in odd places and getting the most out of it. Simmons' raw ability is impressive, but it will be all the more dangerous when fully integrated into San Antonio's multifaceted ensemble attack.
For now, the physical gifts are something to behold in their own right. Anderson took full advantage of Simmons' leaping ability in the championship game, firing an alley-oop pass from near half court.
The ups are all well and good, and they're sure to entertain spectators at the AT&T Center. But it's the defensive chops that could earn Simmons a job as a stopper behind the similarly inclined Green and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard. If head coach Gregg Popovich wants another two-way weapon, he may well have one in Simmons.
He's demonstrated the effort and pedigree that should win him early minutes in San Antonio's wing rotation, particularly in the wake of Marco Belinelli's defection to the Sacramento Kings via free agency. Simmons is a different type of player to be sure, but he should still find opportunities.
At minimum, Simmons should develop into a Corey Brewer-like slasher, a strong defender who also has a nose for penetration and perhaps the occasional corner three. Simmons gets to the rim like an agile running back, and he's a skilled finisher likely to either score or be fouled once he gets into the painted area.
He's also a surprisingly adept playmaker. The assist numbers aren't awe-inspiring, but they're pretty good coming from a 6'6" swingman who slots most naturally into the shooting guard spot.
Hammon even opted to use Simmons as something of a combo guard in Vegas, allowing him to take the ball up the court and initiate offense for stretches at a time. He responded well, showing a natural inclination for bullet passes to shooters on the perimeter.
There's plenty to like about that kind of versatility: an athletic scorer who can defend, pass and handle.
After Simmons had just one summer-league appearance with the Spurs, SB Nation's Michael Erler wrote that he was "completely baffled how someone with his size, length, athleticism and skill set didn't get drafted at all coming out of Houston. You see so many second-round draft picks who can't play dead, and Simmons definitely passes the eye test at first glance."
Simmons isn't the first to raise eyebrows in summer-league play, but he could well be one of the more well-rounded prospects to emerge therefrom.
These kind of packages don't grow on D-League trees.
|Simmons' D-League Metrics In Austin|
Simmons' roundabout journey could explain in part why he's such a consistently tenacious worker on the court. Nothing has come easily for University of Houston product, and that might not be such a bad thing in retrospect. He appears more mature than many first-year players, and there's a persistence to his game and career alike.
That persistence has been epitomized by his patience. Simmons noted that fellow D-Leaguers were called up to the NBA before him, fueling his motivation to follow in their footsteps.
"I felt like if he can play in the NBA, I know I can play in the NBA," Simmons said, per McDonald. "That made me want to keep pushing."
Simmons will need every ounce of that motivation to find his niche with the Spurs. He'll be sharing time on the wing with the likes of Leonard, Green, Anderson and 38-year-old Manu Ginobili. San Antonio's ability to deploy two point guards at the same time could also jeopardize Simmons' minutes at shooting guard. In turn, his journey isn't over quite yet.
"I'm going to keep working and keep pushing," Simmons added, per McDonald. "But I'm confident I can play at this level."
That confidence could be well-founded. Simmons hasn't faced top-shelf competition, but he's steadily improved against the next-best thing. General manager R.C. Buford appears to have found another steal, this time a potential long-term complementary piece for the LaMarcus Aldridge era ahead.
There are admittedly still some questions, at least for now.
Simmons easily found lanes in Orlando and Las Vegas, but that won't often be the case at the NBA level. He'll have to develop a more consistent perimeter and mid-range game, perhaps becoming a middle-class man's DeMar DeRozan in the best of scenarios.
Simmons only made 18.2 percent of his three-point attempts in Las Vegas, and he didn't attempt many (despite the solid range in Austin last season). One summer isn't much of a sample size, but nor are there any guarantees Simmons will light it up from range any time soon at the pro level.
It also remains to be seen what kind of role Simmons fills. He has some Tyreke Evans-like tendencies in that he likes to get to the basket and create (while generally guarding swingmen on the defensive end). It will take time for Simmons to find his niche, but he should see some steady play on Ginobili's occasional nights off.
He could also earn minutes as a defensive specialist, permitting his offensive game more time to grow. From San Antonio's perspective, Simmons could well be a bit of a long-term project for it to cultivate at a deliberate and careful pace.
But make no mistake: The upside here is exciting. Simmons will work with assistant coaches Chad Forcier and Chip Engelland, both renowned for their player-development acuity. In a year or two's time, that could translate into the franchise's latest started-from-the-bottom success story.