Casual NBA fans have just begun to understand that Boban Marjanovic is the Spurs’ latest international find, a 7-foot-3 rookie with legitimate skills and a soft shooting touch. The Serbian Sensation now is greeted with cheers even when he checks into games on the road.
After San Antonio’s 123-98 thumping of the Bucks in Milwaukee’s Bradley Center on Monday night they will want to do some research about Jonathan Simmons, who scored 18 points in 20 minutes off the Spurs bench. He appears to be the latest American player the Spurs have identified as NBA-ready after many teams passed him by, both in the draft and after two seasons in the NBA’s D-League.
The win over the Bucks pushed the Spurs’ record to 30-6, matching the 2010-11 Spurs for the best start in franchise history after 36 games.
On Monday Simmons was one of seven Spurs to score in double figures, outscored only by Kawhi Leonard, who had 24 points. After going scoreless for the first time in his 19-year career when the Spurs torched the Houston Rockets on Saturday, Spurs captain Tim Duncan was one of the seven in double figures, scoring 14 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
But in this latest blowout victory it was Simmons, a 26-year-old, 6-foot-6 rookie from University of Houston, who stood out, mostly because of two jaw-dropping dunks. On the Spurs roster only Kawhi Leonard matches Simmons’ athleticism. After a long, hard journey to make it to the NBA, Simmons clearly enjoys throwing down more than his teammates.
Simmons’ path to the NBA was unusual. He entered the NBA draft in 2012 but was not selected. He spent his first year in professional basketball with the Sugarland Legends of something called the American Basketball League. The league went belly up after a couple of months but Simmons managed to average 36 points a game. He showed up in Austin for an open tryout with the NBA D-League’s Austin Spurs and earned an invitation to the team’s training camp. He made the roster, spent two seasons with the team and won a contract with the NBA Spurs after playing for their team in the Las Vegas Summer League. He didn’t get off the bench through the first nine games this season but has appeared in 22 of the last 27 games and appears to have earned a regular spot in Gregg Popovich’s playing rotation.
Monday’s 18-point output was his third double-figure scoring games of the season and he was a big part of a second-period Spurs surge that turned the momentum of the game after Milwaukee had led by as many as nine points in the first period
“It was just aggressive energy,” Simmons explained to Spurs TV broadcasters Bill Land and Sean Elliott in a televised postgame interview. “(The Bucks) got off to a good start and had the juice and we had to change the juice in the second quarter.”
Simmons has played in the last 15 games and gotten at least 11 minutes in nine of those. Monday’s was the fifth game this season he has played at least 20 minutes and his confidence has grown with the playing time.
“Just being able to be on the court and get better every day is building my confidence,” Simmons told Elliott, “and being able to play games is building confidence, for sure.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich wasn’t surprised at Simmons’ season-high point output or his highlight reel dunks.
“We’ve seen him do those types of things before,” Popovich told reporters after the game. “He just got more minutes tonight.”
The Spurs played Monday without starting point guard Tony Parker, who stayed in San Antonio nursing a right hip injury. Patty Mills started at the point and scored 10 points, nine of them on 3-for-5 shooting from long range.
Mills, one of the heroes of the Spurs’ 2014 championship run, is yet another player who first had to scrap to prove he belonged on an NBA roster and then that he deserved a significant role on a good team. He understands Simmons’ journey and appreciates how far he has come.
Spurs fans are also beginning to appreciate the 26-year-old rookie who refused to give up on his NBA dream.
*Top image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.