Simons could be among the last elite high school players forced to wait a year following graduation to pursue an NBA career, with the league’s officials expected to revisit the age restriction in the near future. But unlike so many talented teenagers over the past decade, Simons did not go to college and bide his time at a university. He spent the past year honing his game at the IMG Academy, putting in months of work that he thinks better prepared him for a pro career than any college program could have.
“I had an opportunity to get better multiple times throughout the day,” he said. “I feel like in college you got three classes a day. That’s a big thing — a lot of time. That’s basically time that I was able to spend in the gym getting better.”
Simons represents both the dilemma the NCAA faces and the puzzle the NBA is trying to solve. For college teams: How can they remain an essential part of a basketball player’s career path? And for the NBA: How can it help develop young talent that doesn’t necessarily need collegiate seasoning?
John Mahoney, Simons’s coach at IMG, says the baby-faced Orlando native is a better player having spent a year at IMG, certainly more NBA ready. Simons is an athletic, 6-foot-3 combo guard, and scouts like his jump shot, his wingspan and his jumping ability. Mahoney says teams also will be impressed by his maturity and leadership skills in the locker room.
“Why wouldn’t you do something like this?” Mahoney said. “If you’re that high caliber of player, you could spend a year preparing, use our facilities and all the personal development resources, and at the end of the day, you go, ‘Okay, am I ready to make that jump?’ I think it’s a no-brainer.”
The NBA’s age limit was enacted in 2005, requiring U.S. players to be at least 19 years old or one year removed from high school to enter the draft. The result had a big impact on the college game, in which “one-and-done” players competed for a single season before leaving school. The rule forced many elite players to attend college classes they had no interest in while delaying the full-time professional careers they preferred.
Scandals rocking the college game — including an active FBI investigation involving some college programs — have invited increased scrutiny on the rule in recent months, and there have been strong indicators that change is afoot. The Commission on College Basketball, headed by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, issued a report in April that recommended eliminating the rule. The group doesn’t have the power to tinker with the NBA rule book, but its recommendation made headlines and the examination included discussions with stakeholders such as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and union Executive Director Michele Roberts.
The two sides have studied data on the success rate of young players entering the NBA, and the league has said it’s discussing ways it can get involved with elite players at a younger age, potentially playing a bigger role in their development.
“From a league standpoint, on one hand, we think we have a better draft when we’ve had an opportunity to see these young players play an elite level before they come into the NBA,” Silver told reporters at the All-Star Game in February. “On the other hand, I think the question for the league is, in terms of their ultimate success, are we better off intersecting with them a little bit younger?”
The NBA may be at least two years away from seriously amending the rule. Before 2005, the league, of course, had a long history of welcoming players straight from high school, a phenomenon that was kick-started by Kevin Garnett in 1995. The years that followed saw Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard and LeBron James make the jump straight to the pros before then-commissioner David Stern stopped the practice.
While college appeared to be the only viable option for several years, increasingly players have started seeking out alternatives. Brandon Jennings spent a year in Italy instead of attending college, and Jeremy Tyler bypassed his senior year of high school to play in Israel. Terrance Ferguson passed on scholarship offers from several schools, opting to play a season in Australia before the Oklahoma City Thunder selected him in last year’s draft. And one of this year’s top recruits, 18-year-old Darius Bazley, announced this spring that he will go straight to the G-League, where the age restriction is 18, rather than attend college.
Simons isn’t certain how NBA-ready he would be had he not attended IMG. He could have used last season as a gap year and enrolled in a college this fall but saw no reason to postpone an NBA career. He’s the draft’s biggest curiosity. NBA teams don’t invest big resources on scouting high school players, so there’s not a lot of tape of Simons against high-level competition, and the young guard opted not to scrimmage at the draft combine last month. He worked out for 10 teams this spring and met with most others at the combine, all of them eager to understand him better.
“They just wanted to see me play, get to know me,” he said. “You normally get to know a player through college, so I feel like they wanted to know who I was as a person.”
Simons accepted a scholarship from Louisville in 2016, but after the school was rocked by scandal, he pulled his commitment. Last summer, not long after Simons had graduated from Orlando’s Edgewater High, he visited IMG’s campus in Bradenton, Fla., undergoing a three-week evaluation before enrolling in a postgraduate year. That meant that rather than attend classes full time, Simons could focus more on basketball.
“One of the best things we have is no time constraints,” Mahoney said.
On a typical day, Simons would report to the gym for a skills session and shoot-around at 7 a.m. After breakfast, he attended a college-level class at 9 (though he did no schooling during the second semester) and then a shooting session just before lunch. He would report to team practice at 2 p.m., which was usually followed by strength and conditioning at 4. At 5:30, Simons had something IMG calls “athletic and personal development,” an hour-long session that included yoga, nutrition, mental conditioning, leadership skills or visualization techniques.
“Schools can’t offer that,” the coach said. “Those things, I think, are what separate us and can be so vital for kids who want to compete at a high level.”
Even if the NBA changes its rule, Mahoney says, promising young players will increasingly seek out alternatives to college, where they can spend more time preparing their game for the next level. For them, Simons provides a blueprint of sorts.
“He’s not a finished product, but he’s got a good head start,” Mahoney said. “He did a good job of utilizing everything we had to offer.”