School had been snowed out for yet another day, but not practice. It’s the season, and the heat is always on in the gym.
Inside Georgia State’s third-floor court, the Panthers’ star guard was easy to pick out from among the sweaty swirl of teammates. He was the only one who could carry off those warm-up pants, the color open to interpretation. Pink, for those who wished to give him grief. Mauve, to the more refined in the audience.
But, really, if D’Marcus Simonds is anywhere near as good as his ambitions, he can wear Gene Sarazen’s knickers to practice and no one would much care.
There is a certain self-assuredness that goes with such a choice in practice fashion. And Simonds certainly has it. He’s not loud about it, just very committed to it.
The attitude overtakes Simonds whenever he’s within sight of a basket. That’s where his personality gets really big. Even if it’s going against a big-pedigree pro such as Kyrie Irving in an offseason tournament game.
“Went pretty well,” Simonds says with a slight smile.
Or, even if he’s just shooting around. Like last summer, as he hoisted a few jumpers with R.J. Hunter, the son of Panthers coach Ron Hunter, and a 28th pick in the 2015 NBA draft. The coach overheard his sophomore teasing his son, telling him he not only would break R.J.’s records (Hunter is the Panthers’ all-time leading scorer), but also go higher in the draft.
Dad was not offended. In fact, dad can put that kind of thinking to practical use. His son, after all, is not going to help him get back to the NCAA Tournament now.
“I love that. (Simonds) really, really means it. He wants his name up on those rafters,” Ron Hunter said.
“Definitely, one of the goals I set for myself is to be one of the best players (at GSU). That’s what I’m working for,” Simonds said. His down payment on that through the midpoint of this season is to be leading the Panthers and the Sun Belt Conference in scoring (21 per game) and assists (4.5). He went for 30 against Georgia Tech in an exhibition victory. He had the program’s first triple-double, granted against tiny Carver Bible College.
On Saturday, the opponent was Georgia Southern, a state and conference rival. It was one of those too rare games when the Panthers’ downtown gym was stuffed and loud, a perfect setting for a certain excitable sophomore who said, “My whole game is pretty much emotion, it’s how I get the upper hand on the opponent – just playing a lot harder.”
In the Panthers’ 83-66 win, Simonds led the team in points (24), rebounds (10) and assists (6) and so impressed his coach that Hunter was moved to say, “D’Marcus is a special player. He was terrible today (shooting 3-for-10 in the first half, committing four turnovers for the game) and he almost had a triple-double.” Hunter’s tongue was somewhat in cheek.
It was Simonds who nailed down the win in a 13-second spree in the last five minutes that consisted of back-to-back steals and consecutive dunks that challenged a couple of laws of physics.
Re-writing the modest annals of GSU basketball was not a goal long in the making for Simonds. Coming out of Gainesville, the 6-foot-4 shooting guard originally committed to Mississippi State, but life had other plans.
First the Bulldogs fired their coach Rick Ray, prompting Simonds to de-commit. And, as he pondered other options, his mother, Wanda, suffering from lupus, grew ever more ill. While he was away at a tournament, where Simonds figured to sift through other options and offers, his mother, only 36, suddenly died.
So much to weigh. He had a previous relationship with Georgia State, a program known to cast a wide recruiting net, even if there is little chance of landing a particular young player the first time around. Operating on a you-never-know philosophy, the Panthers have been a soft landing place for the occasional player who for one reason or another needed to get back near home and reboot.
Coming back home was exactly what Simonds needed after the trauma of his mother’s death. “Not that there weren’t other coaches who could have taken care of him, but he needed his basketball family and the rest of his family to kind of be together and work in one direction,” Hunter said.
The reaction to his decision to forgo playing in the SEC or ACC in favor of Georgia State was question-mark filled. “Everybody was like what are you doing? Why aren’t you going here, why aren’t you going there? You got these other offers. I’m not really worried about what they got to say because I had a plan for myself when I first came here and I’m seeing it unfold,” Simonds said.
It became doubly important to Simonds to play near home for the sake his three younger siblings. All are athletic, he said, and all can use a role model for how they should go about chasing their own ambitions.
The message he most would like to pass along is the one he had inked onto one wrist after his mother died. It’s among the least noticeable of his collection, but one of the most significant: A little rainbow on one wrist, spanning the word “Prevail.”
“She always told me to prevail, get through everything, You got to get the rain first to have the rainbow,” Simonds said.
Simonds just knows things will work out. Because when you have faith in yourself, how can they not?
In a low, level voice, he states as a matter of plain fact, “I could play in any conference. I’m a competitor. I bring it every night. I can score it. I play really good defense. I can play anywhere in the country.”
Illustrating how this Panthers team is evolving, Simonds entered Saturday coming off his two lowest-scoring games of the season (11 and 13 points), but they were games Georgia State won by 13 and 14. In both those games, the Panthers had five guys scoring in double figures.
Around Simonds, a player who makes his living from mid-range in, a slasher whose coach likens to “a poor man’s Russell Westbrook,” GSU has added a compliment of snipers who help spread the floor. As much as Simonds works on incorporating range to his game, that’s not what the Panthers need from him (he’s 31 percent on only 29 3-point attempts).
Simonds plays for a coach who is never shy about selling the talents of those who play for him. Thus, it’s Hunter’s stance that there is no one in the country who could consistently stay with Simonds one-on-one.
At the same time, Hunter acknowledges the growth that’s required: “Sometimes he gets bored. Sometimes at this level, he can think, ‘I’m just better than this guy.’ That’s the maturity he’s got to get. Sometimes he’ll get bored in games. He’s getting better at that because teams game-planning for him. Now, not only is he challenging himself against (individual) players, he’s challenging himself against coaches and teams.”
Bring them all on. Simonds is programmed to prevail.
“The one thing that kid can do,” Hunter said, “is will you to win.”
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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC