This story appears in the July issue of Carolina Blue. Click HERE to subscribe to the magazine.
Photo by Spencer Herlong
“But I know for me myself,” Jackson Simmons pauses.
“Wow. I said me myself. That shows you how much I’ve been in front of the mic.”
There’s nervous laughter that follows from the rising sophomore, but what he’s saying is true. This is the first time Simmons has been in front of a group of reporters since joining the North Carolina basketball team.
He’s at the roundtable because he’s a returning scholarship player, but just a few weeks before he was simply a returning player. He, along with redshirted point guard Luke Davis, received a one-year renewable scholarship from Roy Williams.
In the postseason meeting that Williams has with all his players, he addressed the issue of a scholarship with Simmons, promising to return to it later. With only 10 returning scholarship players and an NCAA maximum of 13, Williams delivered the good news to Simmons during a subsequent meeting.
“I was ecstatic because I knew that I had put in the work to get to this point, and I’m still working to not only keep that status but also help us in the upcoming year,” Simmons said.
The 6-foot-7 Simmons came to Carolina after ditching scholarship offers from other D-I schools. Davidson, Old Dominion and UNC Charlotte were all interested in him, but he instead went to UNC with no offer in tow.
“I came here because I wanted to play at the highest level, and personally I feel I can play at the highest level,” he said. “To come here without one, I kind of had a chip on my shoulder. But I was excited to learn from a Hall of Fame coach, a great coaching staff and being part of a great team. It was the tradition and family atmosphere that seemed to surround me everywhere I went.”
Along with next year’s scholarship, Simmons was also granted one for last season. He appeared in 23 games last season and scored 15 points while grabbing a total of 17 rebounds, a stat for which he was known in high school. He holds the state record for career rebounds with 1,554.
Growing up in western North Carolina, Simmons learned the game of basketball early. Both his parents played the sport, and he developed his game at a young age thanks to his mom.
“I learned how to use my left hand playing against my mom in H.O.R.S.E., because I used to use my right hand all the time and she would use her left and I would lose,” Simmons admitted. “After a while when I started using my left hand and started to improve, she just walked away and didn’t really play me anymore.”
Just like he honed his skills as a first grader with his mom, so too is he doing it this summer against current and former Tar Heels. Williams told Simmons to focus on improving as a basketball player this summer. He’s trying to put his game together—defense, rebounding and scoring. But he’s also focused on the little things like taking charges and diving after loose balls.
In pick-up games at the Dean Dome, Simmons bangs with James Michael McAdoo and Desmond Hubert, both of whom have a height advantage on him. That’s no different from when he had to play against ACC Player of the Year Tyler Zeller in practice, to whom Simmons gave up at least four inches in the post.
Simmons has grown both mentally and physically. Training with strength and conditioning coordinator Jonas Sahratain has helped prepare him for the grown-men strength he faces in pick-up games against the likes of Rasheed Wallace, Marvin Williams and Sean May.
“You see all these names you saw growing up so you have to get over that awe factor. Then also, you learn to ask questions,” Simmons said. “In my first practice I didn’t really ask questions like why was I not in the right position here, or what did you do right here that got you open. I really took that step of asking current and former Heels each and every game what do I need to do to be better on the court. Their experience and knowledge of the game is incredible, and I want to tap into that.
“I know I can play here. And playing against these guys every day has helped me tremendously from a confidence standpoint.”