Fans of the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team probably know about the potential and the growth of junior guard Troy Simons throughout this season, but many may not know the path that landed him in a Lobo uniform.
Simons led the nation in NCJAA scoring during the 2016-17 season while playing for the Polk State Eagles, torching the nets with 26.3 points per game.
The 6-foot-3-inch guard said he wasn’t used to playing college basketball and learned a lot from his time as an Eagle.
UNM head basketball coach Paul Weir said he had been watching Simons for a while and made the junior college transfer one of the potential building blocks of his new Lobo squad.
“Obviously (Simons) was a tremendous scorer in junior college,” Weir said. “As soon as I got the job, I realized we needed a lot of help at the guard position and also 3-point shooting, and he fit the bill.”
Simons is a versatile player — good ball-handling skills, nice shooting ability and an explosive first step with a knack for finishing at the rim, though he seems to pride himself on being a defensive stopper.
But his upside apparently was not enough to keep away detractors, as Weir said there were some that didn’t think Simons could play Division I basketball.
“I think he’s overcome a lot in his life,” the head coach said. “I think he’s proved a lot of potential doubters wrong. I’m just thankful that he’s made that kind of step in his own individual growth process.”
Simons, who grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, shared some of the challenges he’s had to overcome along the way — including not graduating high school on time and even the death of some close friends and family members.
“Some people thought I wouldn’t be able to get here,” Simons said. “But I had to dig down deep and fight through it. I had to do it for my family — and I’m here.”
Rushan Roberts, a close friend of the family, said he remembered first meeting Simons when they were both children on the football field.
Simons said he played wide receiver and safety in high school, though Roberts said he had natural ability on the football field and could play virtually any position. Simons said football was actually his main sport — sharing that his time in high school on the basketball court was really limited to just one year as a junior.
On the hardwood, Simons might remind some of former NBA Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose — the young Rose before his career was ravaged by injuries.
“It’s actually funny you said Derek Rose, because that’s his favorite player,” Roberts said. “He plays just like (him). He just maybe shoots a little bit better than Derek Rose, because Troy can shoot the ball.”
Roberts recounted the death of his older brother, a loss that he and Simons both shared and were forced to help each other cope with. He said he recalled the support he received from Simons and eventually the time came for him to return the favor.
He said he remembered seeing how discouraged Simons was that he could not play during his senior year of high school and encouraged him, trying to keep his spirits high. Simons ended up finishing his education at a prep school and found his way to Polk State before eventually coming to New Mexico.
But things probably haven’t gotten any easier since his arrival in Albuquerque. He had to get acclimated to the altitude and endure a rigorous conditioning program in preparation for the season.
He said he had never flipped tires, pushed trucks or even tried yoga before, but seemed to welcome the challenge, saying his main objectives were to get better every day as an individual and see his team grow together during the season.
Things did not go smoothly at the outset, but the transfer has seemed to find his footing and blossom as the season has progressed. Simons recently matched his season high with a 24-point performance in a big road win at Wyoming as the team hits the home stretch leading up to the Mountain West Basketball Championship.
One of the things he wanted to continue to improve on was ball handing but said his main focus has been on the defensive end, where he has shown the ability to wreak havoc. Simons leads the team in steals with 41, despite missing five games — an average of 1.8 per game.
Weir said he could see early on how committed Simons was to “buying in” and dedicating himself to the program — which he said is sometimes rare to see, especially from a JUCO player.
The head coach said he hoped the biggest takeaways for Simons during his two years of eligibility at UNM would be the team culture and value system, saying the ultimate goal is for a player to commit to something bigger than himself.
That is something Simons already has going for him, according to Roberts.
He said Simons has a daughter he would do anything for. Roberts said Simons lost his grandfather a few years ago and wanted to honor his legacy.
“The way he looks at that little girl, you can tell he’ll do anything in his power to make sure she never wants for anything,” he said.
Roberts said he has high expectations for his childhood friend and sees good things continuing to come Simons’ way. He said Simons can be inspired by pretty much anything, and — even though he is normally quiet as he goes about his business — he definitely plays with a chip on his shoulder.
But above all the basketball aspirations, he said the first priority Simons shared with Roberts was a desire to make the Dean’s List — another goal that will require a lot of devotion. He said he knows his friend is a hard worker and wants people to know that Simons is a special and unique individual.
“This is about to be something special he’s about to do,” Roberts said. “I’ve seen Troy’s natural talent. Now that he’s added hard work and dedication to it, it’s about to be amazing to watch.”
Robert Maler is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers basketball, football and tennis. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @Robert_Maler.