The Magic Struck Gold with Jonathon Simmons

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Prior to the start of the NBA season, most experts didn’t include the Orlando Magic when making predictions for the top teams in the Eastern Conference, and rightfully so. The Magic have been an under-performing team ever since Dwight Howard was traded about five years ago.

About three weeks into the season, the Magic sit near the top of the East with a 5-2 record. Two of their wins were dominant victories over the Cleveland Cavaliers and the San Antonio Spurs. The team is enjoying a career year from Aaron Gordon, and strong play from Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic, all of whom are averaging 20+ points per game this year.

But there is one newcomer who was signed in free agency this past summer who has also had a major impact on the Magic’s good fortunes so far — Jonathon Simmons. Simmons spent the past two seasons with the Spurs where he began as a rookie in the 2015-16 season.

His path to the NBA has been anything but ordinary. He bounced around between a couple of different junior colleges before playing only one season at the University of Houston in 2011-12 and forgoing his final year of NCAA eligibility by declaring for the NBA draft.

Simmons toiled around in minor leagues, playing for the then Sugar Land Legends of the American Basketball League and the Austin Toros of the NBA’s G-League. It was while playing for the Toros where he caught the attention of the NBA. The Toros are the G-League affiliate for the Spurs, and after an impressive showing at the Las Vegas Summer League in the summer of 2015, he made their opening day roster.

In his two seasons with the Spurs, Simmons became a valuable contributor for the team’s second unit. He was next in a long line of hidden gems uncovered by the Spurs front office. He averaged 6.1 points per game on 46.2 percent shooting during his time in San Antonio. Prior to this offseason, Simmons’ stock rose with his performance in the playoffs. In his first ever playoff start against the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals, Simmons dropped 18 points on 66.7 percent shooting from the field. He finished the playoffs averaging 10.5 points per game.

With their free agent priorities seemingly elsewhere, the Spurs withdrew their qualifying offer to Simmons during the offseason, making him an unrestricted free agent. That was when the Magic scooped him up.

Seven games in and the Simmons signing is already paying dividends. This season Simmons has displayed a much improved all-around game. He didn’t really shoot the basketball all that well from the three-point line while with the Spurs. With Orlando, he’s shooting a career-best 50 percent from downtown. He’s attacking the rim a lot more as well. He’s averaging 5.1 attempts from the free-throw line as compared to the 1.7 he took in San Antonio.

Despite still coming off the bench, Simmons is finding more opportunities to score. His shot attempts are up at 10.7 per game and his 16.7 points per game and 53.3 percent shooting from the field are career-highs.

It’s still too early in the season to tell if the Magic can keep up this level of play. It’s certainly a welcome sign for a team that has struggled for the past several years. The East appears to be wide open in terms of securing a playoff berth. If the Magic can maintain this pace and get back into the postseason for the first time in five years, Simmons will most likely be a big reason why.