It has been some time since the San Antonio Spurs needed any introductions. The core of the team has been together for several years, the Big Three since the dawn of time, and the biggest offseason acquisitions (LaMarcus Aldridge and David West) are tried-and-true veterans.
Jonathon Simmons, however, is a relative mystery. When the undrafted rookie out of the University of Houston—having toiled away at a now defunct professional league, and for the Austin Toros—stepped to the free throw line for his first points in Milwaukee
during the second quarter, he was a curiosity greeted with good-natured heckling.
Group of Bucks fans fans chanting at Jonathon Simmons: “WHO ARE YOU? WHO ARE YOU?”
— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) January 5, 2016
After Simmons helped break open a close game with 12 points in the second quarter (4-for-5 shooting from the field, 4-for-5 from the free throw line), including a series of vicious dunks, Simmons was the first name off everyone’s lips.
“The aggressiveness is the first thing that stands out,” Milwaukee Bucks interim coach Prunty said. “His mindset was to attack. He played really hard on both ends of the floor. The aggressiveness of Jonathan Simmons was very contagious. That said, it was a very good team game for them. I just thought he was the catalyst.”
In the Spurs 123-98 victory, Simmons may have shown what he’s capable of, but who he is and where he came from is still unknown to most. To many, he’s just another in a long line of Spurs players to have been unearthed from the most obscure parts of the basketball world.
Where and how do they find such players? A few possibilities:
- After years of ordering from the NBA’s 3-and-D catalog—with guys like Mario Elie, Jaren Jackson, Bruce Bowen—R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich saved up enough rewards points to purchase the slash-and-defend bonus model.
- Following the 2012 NBA Draft, after failing to be selected, Simmons traveled the world on a training mission—finding refuge amongst a group of monks in the mountains. There, he honed his skills to peak precision, until the tragic day a basketball rim killed his master. Now, he goes from arena-to-arena, seeking revenge:
- Simmons was a typical AT&T Center employee until the radioactive bat that Manu Ginobili swatted bit him, transferring some of Ginobili’s powers to Simmons in the process.
- R.C. Buford found Simmons working as a troubled young janitor at Harvard, solving basketball equations on the chalkboard after hours.
The true origins of Jonathon Simmons, NBA rotation player, are simply that he’s a credit to the Spurs use of the D-League. The Spurs found a player with plus-NBA athleticism and one or two functional skills, and incorporated them into their system, which is run in Austin.
Though Simmons is still adapting to the level of athleticism in the NBA—at times, he can be chased off the three-point line too quickly by NBA-level closeouts, and he can get into trouble by over-penetrating—finding quality shots for himself and others is close to second nature thanks to the reps taken in Austin.
When Simmons entered the game in the second quarter, the Spurs trailed 33-37; struggling to compete against the Bucks’ length and athleticism. From Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News:
“We started out very lethargic defensively, and they were very aggressive,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, whose team trailed 30-29 after the first quarter. *They scored 19 in the second quarter, and the defense was very good. That’s where we got separation.”
At times, plus-minus can be an unreliable measure for impact on a game. Correlation does not always equal causation. But the Spurs outscored the Bucks by 15 points in the second quarter with Simmons on the floor, and a team-leading 21 points in the game—thanks in part to his career-high 18 points on 6-for-7 shooting.
Simmons is capable of pushing the ball off rebounds, assessing the defense for weaknesses in transition and getting the team into their offensive sets quickly before retreating to the corner. Though he shoots 41.2 percent from three, he’s a reluctant shooter, often attacking immediately off the catch. Despite this, he rarely causes a hiccup in the offense.
He doesn’t quite yet bend the defense in ways to be a primary playmaker. Simmons moves the ball quickly, making the type of crosscourt diagonal passes that keep defensive rotations chasing in pursuit. If and when the ball swings back to him, he’s capable of attacking the scrambling defense in ways that starter Danny Green simply can’t—as he did when he caught a defender wrong-footed on a swing pass with a little over four minutes in the second quarter, knifing quickly through the lane for a dunk.
Defensively, he’s learning how to channel his physical attributes to be a pest, hounding point guard Michael Carter-Williams into a backcourt violation immediately upon entering the game in the second half.
For all that Simmons can’t and couldn’t do on the court, the Spurs find ways to highlight the positive attributes he does possess, which allows him enough court time to develop the rest of his game and contribute in the process.
The Spurs still win on the strength of a dominant defense, and their stars are consistent to the point of being taken for granted (Kawhi Leonard 24 points on 9-for-12 shooting, Tim Duncan 14 points, 10 rebounds, four assists). But their ability to continue this run is, in no small part, their ability to get production from relatively unknown players.
Who is Jonathon Simmons? For now, it doesn’t matter. Few unknowns should strike fear into the hearts of opposing fans than the anonymous Spurs’ player. By the time they check their game programs, it’s often too late.