Jonathon Simmons looks to resuscitate NBA career with Warriors

Jonathon Simmons was an unemployed 23-year-old struggling to provide for his three daughters when his mother suggested he quit basketball.

It was spring 2013, and Simmons’ debut season with the semiprofessional Sugar Land Legends had just been cut short because the American Basketball League could no longer pay players and coaches. LaTonya Simmons, who worked decades at Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport to feed and clothe her four kids, called Jonathon — her oldest — one night and encouraged him to pursue a career as a barber.

He was already cutting friends’ hair on occasion, and an extensive social circle in the area figured to help him build his client base. But before LaTonya could finish her pitch, Jonathon, irate that his mom would advise him to give up on his goals, hung up on her.

From time to time during his recent four-year stint in the NBA, Jonathon mentioned that conversation to LaTonya and told her, “You should’ve known I was never going to become a barber.” His perseverance has long been his trademark, which is why he again didn’t consider career alternatives when the Wizards waived him 14 months ago.

One of five G League players in minicamp with the Warriors, Simmons, 31, is intent on showing Golden State’s front office that he is still the same defensive-minded wing who was once a key member of winning San Antonio teams. His chances of making the Warriors’ 15-man roster are slim, but he understands as well as anyone how to overcome long odds.

Before his breakthrough with the Spurs five years ago, Simmons barely graduated high school, spent three years in junior college and toiled in minor leagues for two-plus seasons. Along the way, he learned that a couple of missed shots can be the difference between a multimillion-dollar NBA contract and the $35,000 deal he signed with the Warriors’ G League affiliate in February.

“I’m taking this opportunity for whatever the opportunity is going to be, and I’m just hoping for the best out of it,” said Simmons, who has arrived early to minicamp practices over the past week to work on the jump shot that hurt him in stops with Orlando and Philadelphia. “At this point, I’m just trying to control whatever I can control.”

Just a few years ago, few could’ve predicted that Simmons someday would return to the G League in hopes of resuscitating his NBA career. A 6-foot-6 shooting guard with a 6-8 wingspan and 38-inch vertical leap, he went from basketball vagabond to reliable rotation player with the Spurs.

His on-ball defense and acrobatic dunks drew praise from demanding head coach Gregg Popovich. In February 2017, as a 27-year-old second-year player, Simmons scored 19 points on 9-for-15 shooting for Team USA at All-Star Weekend’s Rising Stars Challenge.

Three months later, Simmons was a driving force behind the Spurs’ series-clinching rout of the Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals. With Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker out with injuries, Simmons scored 18 points and, more importantly, held James Harden to 2-for-11 shooting with six turnovers.

The performance helped Simmons land a three-year, $20 million contract the following summer with the Magic. He responded with a career-high 13.9 points per game as head coach Frank Vogel’s starting shooting guard in 2017-18, only for Simmons’ playing time to plummet when Steve Clifford took the job the next season.

In limited minutes off the bench, Simmons shot 36.4% from the field (22.9% from 3-point range) before getting traded to the 76ers at the deadline as part of the deal that brought 2017 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz to the Magic. With Philadelphia, Simmons quickly lost his rotation spot to James Ennis, which made it easy for the 76ers to unload Simmons to Washington in June 2019 in a cost-cutting maneuver.

Two weeks later, the Wizards cut him to duck below the luxury-tax line. Outside of a brief appearance with Overseas Elite in the Basketball Tournament, Simmons spent the next 5 ½ months working out in his native Houston, driving his four daughters to school and waiting for another crack at the NBA.

When it became clear no teams were interested, Simmons talked to his longtime friend, Santa Cruz Warriors assistant coach Anthony Vereen, who convinced him that the G League offered his best path back to the sport’s summit. In five games with Santa Cruz before the league shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, Simmons averaged 19.6 points on 48.6% shooting (38.5% from 3-point range), five rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.4 steals.

The sample size was small, but Golden State’s front office was impressed enough with his defense, shot selection and off-ball movement that it invited him to minicamp. In recent days, Simmons has thrived in scrimmages, providing the type of highlight-worthy dunks and tenacious defense that once helped him go from an open tryout with the Austin Toros to a rotation spot with their parent club, the Spurs.

“I’m a big fan of Jonathon’s,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “I love his story. I love how hard he had to work to get to the NBA. I really love his presence. … I think he belongs in the NBA.”

Added center Marquese Chriss: “Personally, I think he’s a hell of a basketball player. … He has the all-around potential to make this team and make an impact.”

Whether Simmons actually makes the 15-man roster, however, will come down to team needs. The Warriors expect to enter training camp next season with no more than one or two open spots. In addition to Simmons, Ky Bowman, Juan Toscano-Anderson and Mychal Mulder — all three of whom were with Golden State last season — are trying to prove they deserve a guaranteed NBA contract.

But these days, Simmons isn’t pondering what-ifs. For much of his four years at now defunct M.B. Smiley High School in a rough neighborhood of northeast Houston, he didn’t expect to graduate, much less play college basketball.

When Simmons was a senior in 2007-08, a Johns Hopkins study called the school a “dropout factory,” with at least 40% of freshmen not reaching their senior year. Such a bleak reality taught Simmons the importance of focusing on the task at hand to improve his situation.

After a childhood defined by little hope, Simmons refused to settle. That’s why, instead of using the millions he’s earned to open a barber shop in his old neighborhood, he is trying to make sure he is known for more than a couple of memorable seasons with the Spurs.

“Where I came from, you had no goals because you never saw good things happening,” Simmons said. “I just put my good foot forward and made some things happen for my family. Now I want to do more of the same.”

Connor Letourneau covers the Warriors for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Con_Chron

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