Jackson Simmons’ favorite North Carolina basketball memory stemmed from unideal circumstances: a team meeting in January 2013 after the Tar Heels lost their ACC opener at Virginia.
Head coach Roy Williams, insistent on injecting some energy into a 10-4 team that had also lost to unranked Butler and Texas, looked to Joe Holladay, his longtime assistant coach. He asked Holladay for two of the hardest workers on the team, and the coach pointed out guard Luke Davis and Simmons, a sophomore forward.
“I want to put you in,” Williams told Simmons, “but you don't know the plays.”
Six years later, Simmons pinpoints that honest admission as the moment things “really took off” for him. He had to change his focus. Five days after the meeting, on his 20th birthday, the 6-foot-7 former preferred walk-on had the best game of his career: eight points and four rebounds, all offensive, in a 77-72 road win against Florida State, the reigning ACC Tournament champion.
“That was a fun time,” Simmons, 26, told The Daily Tar Heel last Friday. “And that whole year was fun, because that's when I started to play more and really learn what it takes to help a team win by doing my job.”
Since graduating from North Carolina in 2015, the Webster, N.C., native has worked as a graduate assistant with the UNC-Charlotte men’s basketball team and Western Carolina’s director of basketball operations. In May 2018, he joined the Charlotte Hornets as an assistant video coordinator.
And last week, he returned to the Smith Center, where the Hornets held their preseason training camp for the second straight year.
In an interview with the DTH, Simmons, whose hustle made him a fan favorite at North Carolina, reflected on his basketball career so far, his coaching aspirations, North Carolina's 2019-20 roster and more. This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
The Daily Tar Heel: What did you learn in year one with the Hornets?
Jackson Simmons: Year one was a lot of learning. A lot of learning. Coming from college and then going to the NBA, and how the NBA works from a schedule standpoint and how everything fluctuates, it was a little different. This year, it feels a lot different, even early on. It's the first time since I was a (graduate assistant) that I've been somewhere a year afterward. So there's not been change, going from one place to another. That's how you gain comfort ... the relationships are better. I'm enjoying it. It was different last year, but having a summer to think and evaluate what I'd want to do different, how I'd want to go about things, has made the start of this year a little easier.
DTH: What are your current roles?
JS: There's on-court activity: drills, sometimes having to play, helping our coaches with scouting, basically whatever they need help with. It's an on-call thing. You learn each coach and what they need. The biggest thing is to be proactive and always be the first person to ask. Don't let things come to you. It’s a lot of stuff, having to set up the court. A lot of stuff that managers at Carolina did goes into that as well. I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for what they had to do, because that was one of the biggest adjustments: just learning how to do the court setup and really just being a runner. That's probably the biggest thing, learning how to think one step ahead. And court setup, how integral that is to the grand scheme of things and the flow of practice ... you learn how to deal with pressure.
DTH: As we sit here in the Smith Center, what comes to mind immediately from your time at UNC?
JS: Time flies. It truly does fly by. I think it's 400 practices, 120, 130 games. You don't realize how fast that goes by. Seeing guys like Terry Rozier, the Martin twins, playing against Marvin (Williams) in pickup games. You don't realize you were once playing against those guys and competing with them, and now you're trying to help them ... It's truly crazy how time flies by and how much you miss it. I mean, I miss it every day.
DTH: Is coaching something you want to stay in?
JS: It is. I do want to give a lot of thanks to J.B. (James Borrego) and Mitch (Kupchak). They really helped me get this job. They saw something in me. Coach (Mark) Price gave me a chance. Coach (Larry) Hunter, who's now deceased, he gave me a lot of responsibility at Western. I had to learn how to do a lot of things outside of basketball. I'm throwing names all over the place ... There's a lot of people who let me do a lot to broaden my skill set. It's an ever-evolving skill set. It's never set in stone ... It's fun to have a really big melting pot of all the things I like, how people did things and how I want to run a team or a program one day. It's really been neat to transition from college to NBA: what you can take and what you can't take.
DTH: What's something you can take from college to the NBA?
JS: Your effort, your energy, your organization and your relationships with players. You can always take that. If you have those things, you can carry it over. That's one thing I learned from our staff that really made me feel at ease: that part doesn't change. That's made it a lot easier.
DTH: The Hornets are back at UNC for training camp. Why has this worked?
JS: I think change of scenery. There's a comfort level, especially when you're at home. This is one of the best facilities in the country. It's just a change of pace, I think, especially for me. I know where to go, who to talk to.
DTH: Thoughts on UNC’s 2019-20 team?
JS: I think the sky's the limit for them. I think they can continue what they've been doing. It's all going to come down to doing the little things well. I know coach is harping on them for that. If you do the little things, it'll build up. I think this group has a good blend of youth and experience in key areas. In March, they'll really have a chance to add another banner.