"We both have put in a lot of work for me to get to this point," Simmons said on Wednesday. "I was ecstatic because I knew I'd put in the work to get to this point and I'm still working hard to not only keep that status but also contribute to this team and help this coming year."
Simmons made the decision to attend UNC without assurances that a scholarship would be available. The North Carolina state record-holder for career rebounds (1,554 at Sylva (N.C.) Smoky Mountain) declined offers from Davidson, Old Dominion and Charlotte for an opportunity in Chapel Hill. It wasn't until two months before enrolling that he learned he'd have a scholarship as a freshman.
"I really took a leap of faith and trusted in Coach Williams and his vision for me here," said Simmons, whose UNC scholarship is on a year-to-year basis based on availability. "I came here because I wanted to play at the highest level and personally I feel like I can play at the highest level. If I didn't believe I could, I wouldn't have."
But no one, Simmons included, expected that to happen overnight.
The 6-7 forward appeared in 23 games as a freshman, logging most of his limited minutes at the end of already decided contests. That was on a team that had two future first-round draft picks (Tyler Zeller, John Henson) established as the starting post players, plus another (James McAdoo) behind them. This coming season, McAdoo returns, but UNC will need significant game and practice contributions from among the four other post players on the roster – all of which are unproven commodities.
Simmons recognizes the opportunity. His postseason meeting with Roy Williams centered on offseason improvement and re-establishing an identity.
"We talked about goals for this offseason, that's mainly the gist of what we talked about: continue to improve as a basketball player," he said. "The biggest thing for me is I want to put everything together – defense, rebounding and scoring. We both felt I could do that, but also focusing on the little things – rebounding, taking charges, being the first one to get on the floor, because that's one thing I've been known to do, being the first on the floor. I really want to get back to that being my motto, being somebody who will do the little things and everything it takes to win a game…
"He wanted me to go in to pick-up games with the mindset of wining as many games as I can. I want to put winning above everything else."