Orlando Magic wing Jonathon Simmons went from paying $150 for the chance to try out for a minor league team to four years later telling LeBron James that he’d rather not join forces with him, so he can get to the four-time MVP’s level.
In 2013, Simmons paid to audition for the San Antonio Spurs’ D League (now G League) affiliate, the Austin Toros (now the Austin Spurs).
He wouldn’t crack their NBA roster for another two years, but once he did, he became a key cog in the Spurs’ rotation, particularly during the 2017 postseason, when he averaged 10.5 points per game, including 16.8 points when starting in place of the inured Kawhi Leonard.
Naturally, the now-28-year-old had a lot of suitors as a free agent this summer. Among those: the Cleveland Cavaliers.
He got a call from LeBron.
“I even talked to LeBron James over the phone and he was like, `We want you in Cleveland,'” Simmons recently told NBA.com of a July conversation with the Cavs star. “I said, ‘Naw, I want to play against you.’ I want to be able to play against elite guys, and in a couple of years down the line, be where they are. He said, ‘I respect that.'”
He told the same thing to the Spurs, who hoped he’d come back and continue to fill the role he’d been filling. After averaging under 17 minutes per game over his two-year Spurs career, Simmons left for the Orlando Magic, signing a three-year, $20 million contract.
“That’s just part about me—improving, wanting to be better and wanting to have a bigger role,” Simmons said. “I said it to Pop. I said, ‘I can be good over here, but I can’t be great.’ I want to be able to go against the Kawhi (Leonards) night in and night out.”
Now, Simmons is a leading candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year award, averaging 15 points per game in 25.3 minutes off the bench
Not only does Simmons prefer to compete against LeBron than with him, but the Cavaliers likely wouldn’t have been able to afford him. As a team over the salary cap, they didn’t have a lot of money to throw at free agents this summer, and as a 28-year-old searching for his first big contract, Simmons is the last guy you’d expect to take a pay cut for the chance to play in the NBA Finals.
It’s a shame for Cleveland fans, because as a plus wing defender and athletic guy who can also put the ball in the basket, Jonathon Simmons is exactly the kind of piece the Cavs need right now.