Simmons at NBA bottom, but he's enjoying pro life

November 25, 1990|By Diane Pucin | Diane Pucin,Knight-Ridder News Service

SACRAMENTO -- The Sacramento Kings, off to a 1-7 start, are already horrible, but they're young and inexperienced. Maybe they'll get worse.

Their fans leave games early, injuries have sidelined two key players, and the coach was suspended for a game.

Welcome to the wonderful world of the bottom of the NBA, Lionel Simmons. How's it going so far?

"It's going great," Simmons said by telephone from his apartment in Sacramento, Calif. "I love the weather out here."

Simmons, an All-America forward at La Salle University in Philadelphia last year and before that an all-star at Southern High, was the No. 7 draft pick overall and the first of four first-round choices the Kings made last spring.

For the Kings, Simmons has been one bright spot in an already long season.

Although he averaged 26.5 points and 11.1 rebounds last season and led the Explorers to a 30-2 record, there were plenty of questions about the 6-foot-7 forward. Already, there are some answers to those questions:

Could he shoot well enough in the NBA to play small forward, his natural position? (Maybe.) Was he quick enough to defend other small forwards? (Definitely yes.) Could he handle the ball well enough? (Definitely yes.) Could he get his rather unorthodox shot off? (So far, so good.)

Early in the season, Simmons was averaging 16.1 points (second on the team), 6.2 rebounds (second on the team) and 4.1 assists (second on the team). He was shooting only 42.5 percent, but that was up from the 32 percent he was hitting after the first three games.

"I'm getting good shots," Simmons said, "and I know I'm a good shooter. It's just a matter of getting more comfortable."

When Simmons defended Lakers all-star James Worthy, he held him to 20 points and got some words of praise from one of the league's most respected players. "James told me I did OK," Simmons said.

Jerry Reynolds, the Kings' director of player personnel, said the Kings have been pleasantly surprised by Simmons. "He's a much better defensive player than we were led to believe," Reynolds said. "When we watched him in college, he was usually playing zone. But he's very smart and deceptively quick, and he's doing a great job defensively.

"He's also an excellent passer. He sees the floor very well. We knew he was a good rebounder, and he hasn't disappointed us there. His biggest weakness so far has been his shooting. I've been telling people, if he could shoot a little better, people would be comparing him to Larry Bird. As it is, I think he's like a smaller Danny Manning. He does a lot of things well, no one thing great, but a lot of things well. He's going to be a very good player in this league for a very long time."

Simmons appreciates the compliment, but figures playing well is the least he can do. He signed a five-year, $7 million contract Sept. 27, one day before the Kings opened preseason practice.

"It's been a little bit of a whirlwind," Simmons said. "Everything is still a little strange, a little new. I'm still learning my way around. I haven't had much time to get settled."

The same can be said of the Kings. Simmons was just the first of an unprecedented four first-round choices the Kings made. Their second pick was guard Travis Mays from Texas, who also starts; next came forward Anthony Bonner from St. Louis, who has been sidelined with a stress fracture in a foot; and finally Temple center Duane Causwell, who had played in all seven games and was averaging 2.1 points and 2.1 rebounds before Tuesday night's game.

Reynolds also engineered deals or raided the waiver wires for starting center Bill Wennington (in a deal that also brought the Mays and Causwell draft picks for Rodney McCray); starting guard Rory Sparrow (a draft-day trade that sent the Kings' second-round choice to the Heat); swingman Ricky Calloway (waiver wire signee); guard Steve Colter (from Washington for Byron Irvin); and guard Bobby Hansen and center Eric Leckner (in a three-way deal with Washington and Utah that cost the Kings last year's No. 1 pick, Pervis Ellison).

In fact, in a five-month period, the Kings changed more than three-quarters of their roster. The only three returning players are forward Wayman Tisdale, who leads the Kings in scoring (22.4 points per game); forward Antoine Carr, who comes off the bench to score 14.8 points a game, and perennially disappointing center Ralph Sampson, who has played 10 minutes this season and scored two points.

"We're all still getting to know each other," Simmons said. "In a way, most of us are rookies here. I mean, I'm still learning guys' names, so it's not a surprise that we don't always know who's doing what on the court."

Hansen, who was starting at guard until tendinitis in his right rotator cuff sidelined him Saturday, said, "Lionel's still calling me Bill or Jim. It's funny, but then again it isn't. I'm having problems getting to and from the arena. I'm still having to stop at a gas station and get directions home."

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