The texts and emails came flooding in, as Jackson Simmons knew they would, after he was on the receiving end of a ferocious dunk by N.C. State’s C.J. Leslie on Saturday.
“I just said, ‘Hey, I made SportsCenter,’ ” Simmons, a sophomore at North Carolina, said with a cheerful shrug.
Nobody can dunk on you if you’re on the bench, a place where Simmons has spent quite a bit less time lately as he has become an increasingly important – and unexpectedly popular – part of the Tar Heels’ rotation.
In the space of a year, he has gone from being one of the five players left on the court at Florida State when the rest of the Tar Heels sought safety in the locker room, to being a critical component in the revenge win against the Seminoles – the “big” man, at 6-foot-7, in the small lineup the Tar Heels used to close out the 77-72 win on Jan. 12.
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Simmons’ increasing role is a concrete example of how the Tar Heels are still trying to find a groove. When players leave unexpectedly (Larry Drew II, the brothers Wear) or early (Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Kendall Marshall), those departures leave voids that continue to resonate seasons down the road.
The collective attrition at forward, combined with Tyler Zeller’s graduation, left the Tar Heels gambling on the inexperienced Desmond Hubert, Joel James and Brice Johnson. All three have struggled at times, sending coach Roy Williams down the roster until he found Simmons, who played a total of 42 minutes as a freshman and wasn’t used at all this season against Texas, Nevada-Las Vegas and Virginia.
Starting with the win at Florida State, Simmons has played 15 minutes or more in three of the past five games, including a career-high 21 minutes in a win at Boston College on Tuesday. His contributions were as invaluable in those games as they were largely unexpected
A record-setting rebounder at Smoky Mountain High who grew up in Webster, Simmons originally committed to North Carolina as a recruited walk-on. He passed up scholarship offers from Davidson, Charlotte and Richmond among others, including nearby Western Carolina, where his parents played basketball.
He never looked back, mesmerized by the opportunity to play college basketball at the highest level, and before he even arrived on campus, he was awarded a scholarship on a year-to-year basis when available, the turnover in the program leading to not only playing time for Simmons but tuition as well.
Based on his limited action at North Carolina, it’s pretty clear Simmons could have been a contributor in the Atlantic 10, if not an outright star in the Southern Conference.
At the moment, he is the ACC’s most efficient offensive player, albeit in a fraction of the playing time of the actual leaders. Simmons wondered at times, but never wavered.
“Having the patience and perseverance to know that your time will come, maybe that year or the next year, it was tough at times,” he said. “I saw a lot of my friends playing at other schools and contributing and playing well.
“I just kept telling myself, you can’t sit around and sulk, you just have to keep working and know that eventually this hard work is going to pay off.”
After the win at Florida State, the Tar Heels returned home to face Maryland at the Smith Center. When Simmons came into the game, at the 10-minute mark of the first half, the crowd gave him a rousing ovation in appreciation of his efforts in Tallahassee.
“Every time I go in a game, it’s just a blur, because I’m communicating with my teammates to see who they got and get the situation,” Simmons said. “But I heard them that day, and it was special.”