A self-described average athlete, Simons still manages to soar above the crowd
The shot was like the hundreds of others Ben Simons has unleashed during his four seasons in a Charlotte Country Day uniform.
When the ball left his hands – so far from the basket but so pure, so true – everyone in the Bruton Smith Athletic Center believed it was going in. Helpless defenders turned toward the basket, perhaps hoping that this time things would be different and one of Simons’ jumpers might mercifully miss its mark.
But in a millisecond, the ball had traveled a remarkable distance, for a high school 3-pointer anyway, and swished through the nets.
How else could Ben Simons have scored his 1,000th career point?
OK, maybe it would’ve been cool to finally see the 6-foot-4 Simons blow past a defender and soar through the paint for a come-fly-with-me jam or a sweet finger roll – the way his fraternal twin brother, Zach, does for the Bucs at times. But Simons accepts who he is. No, he embraces who he is.
A grinder. A stickler for the details. A refuse-to-be denied, floor-burn type of guy.
He knows that’s ultimately how he surprised nearly everyone and made the Country Day varsity squad as a freshman despite seeing hardly any playing time in middle school. He knows that’s how he reached that rarefied air of Country Day’s 1,000-point club in a Jan. 14 win over Cary Academy.
And, in reality, that’s how Simons – averaging 20.6 points and 10.9 rebounds – has put together one of the most impressive campaigns of any player in Mecklenburg County this season.
Call it blue-collar dominance.
“I’m just a hard worker, that’s about it,” he said, seemingly trying to downplay his dream senior season. “I know I’m not the most athletic guy. I can’t jump that high, but my dad’s just taught me how to use my body, and I’ve just tried to work on my shot as much as possible.
“I just love basketball. It’s so much fun. When people say things like, ‘Ah, man, I gotta practice,’ I’m like, ‘Oh, I love going to practice.’ I just love competing. I hate losing. And when I’m playing basketball, I’m just in a really good mood. On Saturdays, Sundays or whenever, I just love getting the ball and shooting.”
That shooting ability has made him a legend of sorts at Country Day, and opponents in the Charlotte Independent Schools Athletic Association know it’s one thing they have to try to negate when facing the Bucs. That’s been the case since Simons’ sophomore season, when he officially set the school record for 3-pointers in a game with seven but also drained 11 shots from beyond the arc in a preseason contest.
Two years ago, Dwayne Cherry, a former Country Day player, replaced Alfonzo Duncan as the Bucs’ coach. Before he ever met his players, Cherry’s ex-coach, Kevin Daly, gave him an idea of what a weapon he had on the roster.
“Coach Daly has been here for years,” Cherry said, “and he said, ‘There’s a kid named Ben Simons … Dwayne, Ben Simons is probably the best shooter to ever come through this school.’ And when I finally had a chance to see the guy play, I said, ‘Wow.’ It’s not just that he’s a good shooter; he has range on his shot. A lot of shooters have to hug the (3-point) line, but Ben can extend it.
“I think he knows that he has to master the little things to make up for what he doesn’t have in other areas. So he just lives in the gym – Saturdays, Sundays. He’s just a hard worker. He’s relentless.”
Simons began honing his shot when he was in elementary school, going through shooting drills with his brother and dad, Bill. Back then, Bill coached his sons’ youth basketball team, and he remembers a time when everyone didn’t embrace Ben’s willingness to launch 3-pointers.
“Benjamin was small enough at the time that (a 3-pointer) was a really long shot,” Bill said. “This man comes up and tells him, ‘Quit doing that. You can’t do that. You can’t make that shot, so you shouldn’t shoot that shot.’
“But Benjamin marches to the beat of his own drummer, and he didn’t worry about that at all. He kept shooting. I think things like that are what drive Benjamin. He believes in himself. If he misses, it doesn’t rattle him. He’s got a high level of confidence that the next one’s going in.”
And while Simons certainly has the green light to shoot his extremely deep jump shots these days, there are times when Country Day coaches even have to try and reel him in. In a December game against West Mecklenburg, for instance, he shot one from about 26 feet – more than 2 feet beyond the NBA 3-point line.
“(The coaches) yelled at me, and I even knew it was a bad shot,” Simons said sheepishly. “I could see Coach Cherry jumping up and down, saying, ‘No, Ben! Don’t shoot it!’ I just kind of looked over to Coach Cherry and smiled.”
“I kind of pray it goes in sometimes,” he said.
But this season, especially, Simons has been so much more than a jump-shooter. Despite his lofty scoring average, he seems to take more pride in the nearly 11 rebounds pulls down in each outing. Those are signs of hard work, ruggedness and “want-to” – all the things he cherishes.
“I know I can’t jump the highest, so I’ve just got to box out really well,” he said. “I’ve got to do the little things like that. And I know if I seal off people well, I can go get the basketball, and I take pride in doing that.”
Although he had a career-high 16 rebounds against Garinger this season, his two best overall performances have come against sound South Carolina teams. Against Blythewood, he totaled 34 points and 15 rebounds on Dec. 28. The next week, against Fort Mill, he registered 33 points and 14 rebounds.
Could it be that people look at Simons, despite his well-known shooting ability and sweat equity under the boards, and underestimate him because he doesn’t run particularly fast or jump high?
“I think so,” Cherry said. “When I talk to college coaches, they notice that he doesn’t strike you as the best athlete on the floor. But the kid does whatever it takes to get a rebound, to score. He’ll step in and take a charge. People try to stop him from scoring and from getting rebounds, and he just finds a way to get it done.
“The thing I try to tell college coaches is, ‘Come watch him in a game. Regardless of who we play, he produces. Whether it’s one of the strongest teams in the state, this guy puts up numbers every night, regardless of the competition.’
“We’re fortunate to have him at Country Day.”
But Simons aspires to play college ball. A number of Division III schools are interested in him. But even though he knows some might doubt him, he wants to play Division I ball. Wofford is starting to express some interest in Simons as a walk-on, and Cherry believes his star is capable of playing at that level or even higher.
“I feel if he can just get a chance to play with those (Division I) guys, and the coaches watch him on a daily basis, he’ll show them what they’ll be missing if they don’t keep him,” Cherry said.
There’s no doubting that Simons is going to put in the work to achieve his goal. But if the right college basketball opportunity doesn’t come along, he’s prepared to move forward as a student at maybe N.C. State, Clemson or Alabama.
“To be where I am right now, to be in position to score 1,000 points, I’m just living the dream,” Simons said. “Like I’ve said, I’ve never been the most athletic kid, but I always knew I could shoot the ball and hustle. So whatever happens, this has been awesome.”
And whether it’s as a high-scoring intramural player or a role-player on a Division I bench, that pure, true jump shot will be unleashed on a college campus somewhere next year.