If Justin Simmons gets this basketball thing figured out, then look out.
“I've been in parks for many years, but organized basketball, this is kind of like my second year,” Simmons said.
The high-flying UNO wing made his Division I debut Friday night in a 77-64 victory over Northern Illinois that included a pair of scintillating dunks and a number of plays that were high on athleticism.
Not bad for a track guy who didn't get much interest as a high school basketball player since he didn't play too much.
Simmons checks off the seasons of his high school career like this:
Freshman year, just moved from California to Milwaukee and didn't try out.
Sophomore year, broken hand, didn't play.
Junior year, got cut and transferred from Bradley Tech to South Division High School.
“I've been through a lot,” Simmons said.
Senior year, played basketball.
“But I wasn't really taking it seriously because I wasn't getting recruited by anybody,” Simmons said. “I was just going to practice. I wasn't getting my work done in the gym or in the weight room. I thought it was over.”
Simmons followed a friend to Division III Concordia (Wis.) and ran track, where as a freshman he picked up two third-place finishes (400 meters, triple jump) and two fourths (high jump, long jump) at the Northern Athletics Conference's indoor meet and then earned four seconds (400 meters, 4x400 relay, long jump and triple jump) at the NAC outdoor.
Meanwhile, he'd been spotted playing a little basketball.
“The coach asked me to play, but then he didn't play me,” Simmons said.
Simmons appeared in 13 games for a 15-11 team in the 2009-10 season, scoring 23 points in 47 minutes.
Back on the track, he won the NAC's outdoor 400 and high jump while picking up second-place finishes in the 400, long jump and triple jump.
By now, though, Simmons wanted to give basketball a shot. He didn't attend school for a year while working and working out and eventually, through connections that included former Creighton player Larry House, landed at Butler (Kan.) Community College.
In his one season there, Simmons averaged 16.8 points per game.
UNO has been listing Simmons as a junior, but UNO coach Derrin Hansen said the Mavs will have to have a sixth season of eligibility granted from the NCAA in order for Simmons to play next season.
Considering his relatively limited basketball experience, it seems like Simmons would have a fair amount of still-untapped potential.
“I'd like to think so,” Hansen said.
The 6-foot-3, 190-pounder moved into the starting lineup for the Mavs and opened with a 12-point outing against Northern Illinois on Friday. He hit 5 for 13 from the field, including 1 of 4 from 3-point range, and added two rebounds, two assists and a steal. Oh, and those two dunks, too.
“He's a really good player for where he is right now,” Hansen said of Simmons' experience level. “He's got athletic ability, and catch-up ability (to overcome defensive mistakes), and he's getting better at making fewer and fewer mistakes.”
Simmons' first dunk was a crowd-pleaser in transition, with he and CJ Carter passing back and forth twice before Carter floated an alley-oop that Simmons converted for a 33-30 first-half lead.
The second dunk was NBA dunk contest quality, a breakaway in the closing seconds. He swept in from the right wing, took off from the edge of the lane just outside the block, then threw down a left-handed windmill.
UNO center John Karhoff, in a recent pre-practice interview, was comparing Simmons' leaping ability to that of former Mav teammates Tyler Bullock and Torrian Harris, when Simmons suddenly rose up for a 360-degree dunk on the other end of the floor.
“See what I mean?” Karhoff said.
Simmons' opening night of dunks might have already topped those two high-fliers.
Simmons said that at last check his vertical jump was 34½ inches ... but it might be time for another test.
“I feel like it's gotten way higher,” he said.
But Simmons is more than just a dunking machine. He showed good driving ability, several times deftly changing his dribble speed to avoid defenders. And his jump shot has nice rotation.
“I haven't played that much, and I'm constantly changing my jump shot to see what's comfortable, to see what's going in,” Simmons said. “I'm trying to find the perfect jump shot.
“The most impressive thing about my game is my jumping ability. If I get everything else up to how high I can jump, I think I'll be pretty good.”
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