College Basketball

DeCock: An unusual end to Simmons’ strange UNC career

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North Carolina’s Jackson Simmons played two minutes against BeeJay Anya and N.C. State on Feb. 24.
North Carolina’s Jackson Simmons played two minutes against BeeJay Anya and N.C. State on Feb. 24. rwillett@newsobserver.com

He never knows when the call will come. Some nights, it never comes at all. On at least a few nights, Jackson Simmons has helped make a difference between winning and losing for North Carolina, if only a very few.

Saturday, for the first time in four years, Simmons will know. He will start, on Senior Night, against Duke, to essentially conclude one of the oddest and most unlikely North Carolina careers in recent memory.

A preferred walk-on from the mountains who might have been a star in the Big South or Southern Conference but chose instead to come to North Carolina, Simmons has spent the past three seasons playing an important but unusual role: Roy Williams’ safety net, security blanket and 6-foot-7 survival kit.

When everything else is going wrong, Williams can count on Simmons to do it right. One too many missed defensive assignments, blown box-outs and sloppy screens by the big men, and that’s when the coach turns to his right, looks down the bench and calls on Simmons: “Jackson, see if you can give us a spark.”

“It’s really an unusual feeling, because it’s usually frustration with somebody else,” Williams said. “It’s hard to say that, and it’s probably not the coolest way to do it, but it’s the truth. I’m saying, ‘I know Jackson will do this, I know Jackson will do that.’ He’s going to box out and he’s going to take a charge and he’s going to dive on the floor.”

The breakthrough came during his sophomore year, when a rash of injuries pushed him somewhat unexpectedly onto the fringes of the rotation. With North Carolina struggling at Florida State – where, a year earlier, Simmons had been one of the walk-ons left stranded on the court to run out the clock while the rest of the team fled the storming fans – Simmons came in, hustled for loose balls and played 15 minutes in the Tar Heels’ win.

Later that season, he played important roles in wins at Boston College and Virginia Tech. In the NCAA tournament, with North Carolina going nowhere in its opening game against Villanova, Simmons came in and set a series of screens for Marcus Paige, P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock that helped the Tar Heels shoot their way back into the game. At the end, Simmons missed three free throws that would have iced the win before finally making the fourth.

He hasn’t been needed as much in the two seasons since because the other big men have gotten better, more consistent, and without shooters like Bullock and Hairston, Simmons’ screen-setting ability isn’t as essential. He eventually earned a scholarship, but his minutes went down last season, and again this season.

Still, some games, when the Tar Heels are sloppy or scrapping, just feel like Jackson Simmons games. He’ll play in those, and maybe he’ll help settle things down, and maybe he won’t, but at least he’ll play. Other games, when things are running smoothly, he’ll watch, maybe get in at the end.

“Some of the most talented guys in the world don’t outwork guys with more heart,” Simmons said. “That’s just what I focus on. I don’t really worry about it. I do what I can control.”

He watched his friends and AAU teammates go elsewhere, smaller schools, where they never wondered if their coach was going to look their way in exasperation. At first, Simmons wondered if he made the right decision.

Now, he has no regrets.

Well, maybe one.

Over the course of his career, he hasn’t spent very much time on the court against North Carolina’s biggest rival. He didn’t play at all in the first meeting this season and has appeared in only four of the seven games for a total of 12 minutes.

“It just goes back to, there’s some games where the matchup just isn’t right,” Simmons said. “When I have played, it’s been fun. To start against them tomorrow will be thrilling.”

He’ll start, and he’ll play, and for once, he knows for sure.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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