Meighan Simmons overcomes career setbacks to play for Dream

Dream guard Meighan Simmons received the nickname “Speedy” from Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. While her play on the court is characterized by a fast-paced nature, her arrival to the WNBA was anything but quick.

Simmons is in her first season in the league, but that wasn’t supposed to be the case. She’s had two stops before with the New York Liberty and Seattle Storm, two opportunities that ended with Simmons being cut. Her refusal to let those hiccups hold her back has led her to Atlanta, where she has given the Dream a needed scorer from behind the arc.

Tennessee star and Los Angeles Sparks’ forward Candace Parker spotted Simmons at a camp when Simmons was a prep standout in Cibolo, Texas. Parker called her coaches back in Knoxville to alert them about this young talent she had spotted. While coaxing Simmons to leave Texas took some time, she committed to the Vols in October 2009.

Simmons thrived at Tennessee under Summitt then Holly Warlick, helping Tennessee win 117 games, capture three SEC tournament titles and make three Elite Eight appearances in her four years.

“I was never afraid to put her in any situation,” Warlick said. “I just think (hitting big shots) is what she’s had to do her whole career.”

Simmons’ college showing led her to the Liberty, which selected her in the third round of the 2014 draft. After appearing in the team’s three preseason games, the Liberty cut Simmons, leaving her basketball future in doubt.

Instead of sulking, Simmons kept pushing herself. She returned to Knoxville and worked out at Tennessee’s gym on a regular basis. She also talked to her agent about their best options, and the answer was playing overseas.

“I wanted to get my name out there and do something instead of just being home for eight months not being able to play,” Simmons said. “I got the opportunity and took a chance.”

That chance was with ICIM Arad, a team in Romania’s Romanian Liga Nationala. She showed her capability in her 31 games in 2014, averaging 16.4 points per game with a team that made the league’s semifinals.

Her play in Romania caught the attention of the Storm, who signed her in February 2015. This union was also short-lived, as she was the team’s final cut in June.

This setback didn’t cause Simmons to give up, either. It was back to her previous plan: work out at Tennessee and find the best option. This time, it was playing with PF Umbertide in Italy during fall 2015.

Simmons again was one of her team’s best players, averaging nearly 22 points per contest. While she worked on her game, the opportunity with Umbertide also put her up against WNBA players such as the Lynx’s Rebekkah Brunson, the Sun’s Camille Little and the Storm’s Noelle Quinn. Facing these players not only gave Simmons WNBA-caliber competition, but it also gave her more supporters.

“A lot of them encouraged me to keep going,” Simmons said. “They knew my story and they knew what I was capable of. They kept telling me I’ll get my chance.”

While a few teams checked in with Simmons’ agent during her run in Italy, the Dream separated itself from the pack. The team’s style of play as well as veteran coach Michael Cooper made Simmons intrigued.

Still, Simmons had reservations about giving the WNBA another go.

“I was worried, thinking this is my third time,” Simmons said. “How do I know they’re not going to cut me?”

A phone call with Cooper eased her concerns, and on March 3 she signed. She’s played an important role as one of the team’s top reserves and has appeared in 16 games before Wednesday’s game with Minnesota. She may be a rookie in the WNBA, but she’s shown little hesitation to make plays happen.

Her value has already been displayed several times. Against the Liberty on June 22, Simmons snapped the Dream’s 0-for-14 3-point drought with a shot that forced overtime. Against the 20-1 Sparks on Sunday, Simmons came off the bench in the first half of a tight game and promptly hit consecutive 3-pointers to give the Dream breathing room. Her play helped Atlanta upend Los Angeles’ star lineup, which of course includes Parker.

Simmons’ task with the Dream is no walk in the park. There’s no clear sign going into a game how much time she’ll play; she only knows she’d better make something happen when she’s in.

“I couldn’t do it,” said Cooper, who won five NBA titles as a player with the Lakers. “There’s a fine line you have to walk as a shooter, but you’ve got to believe you’re one of the best. If you’re confidence level is high, shots will go in.”

That level of difficulty makes the part perfect for Simmons. Most would have spurned heading to Europe to salvage a playing career. Some might have hesitated to give the WNBA one more go after the past failures. And many may pass on being a backup who lacks a lot of clarity on what their roles will be each game.

Handling those challenges happen to be Simmons’ forte.

“A lot of people would have just stopped, but the word behind my name is perseverance,” Simmons said. “I just remain confident and put my faith in what I can do.”

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