Earning An Opportunity
SYLVA, N.C. --- Jackson Simmons isn't the type of kid who battles with his parents too often.
Raised in the small town of Sylva, Simmons is a typical Smoky Mountain boy -- affable, polite and chooses his words carefully. Disrespecting mom and dad just isn't his style. But last year when Jackson was getting ready for the Carolina Challenge, he didn't see eye-to-eye with his father, Si Simmons.
Trying to get his son to relax, Si -- a former basketball player at Western Carolina -- told Jackson to not go out of his way to prove himself at the event. He told him to let the game come to him.
It wasn't the first occasion Si had given Jackson this advice but it made even less sense to him this time. Playing against the top players in the state in front of important scouts, Jackson couldn't be passive. He didn't have it in him.
"That's not who I am," Jackson said. "I've always felt like there's one person out there who's saying ‘He's not that good or he can't do this or he can't do that.' I have that chip on my shoulder."
From there Jackson played like a prospect possessed. He outworked players with bigger reputations and even bigger bodies. With every offensive rebound collected, shot blocked and loose ball tracked down, he built a name for himself.
Jackson wasn't the type of player who made a coach's jaw drop. He was just the type of player every coach wants on his team.
"Everything just clicked," Jackson said. "That's really when my whole summer and spring started because my confidence was just there. From then on I was like ‘This is how it needs to be.'"
At 6-foot-7 Jackson is a skilled, face-up power forward. He can shoot. He can put it on the floor and drive past defenders. He can also mix it up in the post with a nice hook shot. But that doesn't really do his game justice. What makes him special is his willingness to do the dirty work.
"My bread and butter has always been running the court, high energy, getting after it," Jackson said. "When I first started out, I was more ahead defensively than I was offensively. So I would just try to run and get garbage points."
Some players have a sixth sense when it comes to rebounding and Jackson falls into that category. He has great instincts of where to be and when to be there.
"He has a knack for being around the ball," Smoky Mountain coach Jimmy Cleaveland said. "He's going to make the most of his opportunities crashing offensive boards and doing those types of things. He plays every possession on both sides of the floor."
In practice, Jackson's intensity is contagious. He's not always a vocal leader but he consistently shows his teammates what to do through his play.
"That's kind of the way we practice," Cleaveland said. "We try to get after each other in practice and he's leading all the way."
Given his competitive disposition, Jackson's path to North Carolina makes perfect sense.
After initially receiving attention from schools like Clemson, Georgia and Virginia, it became clear to Jackson that he'd probably end up at a mid-major.
"All the bigger schools had the same response," Jackson recalled. "I was the second or third guy in line."
As the son of a current and former high school coach, Jackson understood the recruiting process. He didn't take offense to falling down school's wish lists but it did bother him a little.
So when Roy Williams came calling with an offer of a walk-on role, he understandably wasn't very receptive off the bat. But when he actually sat down with Williams his opinion changed.
"It was more than I expected," Jackson said. "The way he presented it … it made me feel like I was being offered a scholarship."
Williams told him he'd have the same opportunity as anyone else to earn playing time and eventually a scholarship. All Jackson ever wanted was a chance and that's what he got.
"When you get on campus, stars mean nothing. What you did in high school and AAU means nothing," Jackson said. "Everyone is starting over and that's the best way for me to start."
After speaking with Williams he started noticing people wearing Carolina shirts around Sylva. Finally, he saw someone wearing a Nassau t-shirt -- the destination for UNC's preseason trip.
"If that's not an omen, I don't know what is," Jackson said.
He committed shortly thereafter.
Since committing Jackson said he's been embraced by his future teammates -- especially at his visit to Late Night with Roy.
"I just felt welcome and they treated me like I was one of the guys," Jackson said. "There was no status with the scholarships."
Expectations for a walk-on are rarely high but Jackson isn't a typical non-scholarship player. Williams has given significant roles to walk-ons in the past – Tar Heel fans remember the contributions of Wes Miller -- and told him if he does everything he asks, he'll have an impact on the program.
And perhaps that impact will be bigger than Williams anticipated. In his first game of the season Jackson scored 34 points, grabbed 21 rebounds and blocked five shots.
Cleaveland isn't sure if Jackson can keep up that pace but he does know one thing.
"Jackson will make the most of this opportunity," he said. "He's going to work hard. He's not going to give up. When he's around better competition it just elevates him."
Check back tomorrow for Part II ...