Kobi Simmons sat at his locker, eyes on his cellphone, as a horde of media stampeded past him following the Arizona Wildcats’ win over Saint Mary’s on Saturday night.
Rawle Alkins was UA’s hero that night, playing with a fractured finger. Lauri Markkanen led the Wildcats with 16 points, another milestone on his way to a certain NBA future.
Then there’s Simmons, the forgotten freshman. He hasn’t played much recently, but if he’s frustrated about that, he’s not letting it show.
“Just playing hard and doing my job,” he said.
One day earlier, he touched on making sacrifices for the betterment of the team: “We’ve been winning games and that’s what I’m all about. I look at it on the other side of, you know, with team success comes individual accolades.”
The fact of March is that coaches sometimes shorten their rotation. Simmons, it seems, has been a casualty of that.
In a stretch ranging from Arizona’s season opener against Michigan State on Nov. 11 until Allonzo Trier returned from a 19-game suspension at UCLA on Jan. 21, Simmons was a key member of the rotation.
In that stretch, which included multi-game absences from guards Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Kadeem Allen, Simmons started 15 games and averaged 30.3 minutes.
He took an average of 9.5 shots and scored an average of 12.1 points during that span. He scored a season-high 20 points in the Wildcats’ win over UCLA in Pauley Pavilion.
In the 14 games since, Simmons’ playing time has been cut nearly in half. The freshman has averaged 16.3 minutes, 5.6 shots and 4.9 points per game in that stretch. He’s shooting 32.6 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from 3-point range.
Those numbers have dwindled even more of late.
Simmons has played in six minutes or fewer in five of Arizona’s past six games, the outlier coming in a first-round victory over North Dakota, when he played 14.
So, what’s happened?
“Recently, he hasn’t played as much,” UA coach Sean Miller said last week. “That doesn’t mean that he won’t have a big role. … But that role can change and grow. We’ve shrunk our rotation a little bit, we’ve given some players more minutes, maybe others less. But that’s not really a reflection on Kobi as a player or his attitude.”
Simmons was a five-star recruit from Atlanta who picked Arizona over Ohio State and Kentucky because he felt the situation at UA “would be best for me.”
The commitment came somewhat as a surprise at the time, as Simmons had previously eliminated Arizona from contention, but he said the Wildcats’ persistence ultimately sold him on the program.
After committing, Simmons was all in — he pushed both Alkins and forward Terrance Ferguson to join him in the 2016 class. Alkins has been a rising start in March. Ferguson ultimately opted to play professionally in Australia rather than report to college.
“I thought it was a great situation, and I wanted to win,” Simmons said of Arizona. “I felt like seeing the guys we had coming back and committed, I thought it would’ve given me the best chance to win. I could’ve stayed home and I could’ve played for a lot of different schools, but you see where we are now and it’s paying off.”
Simmons isn’t the first highly touted Arizona guard recruit to ride the bench during the postseason as a freshman.
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Gabe York didn’t play in two of Arizona’s three NCAA Tournament games back in 2013. Jackson-Cartwright played 11 combined minutes during the Wildcats’ 2015 NCAA Tournament run to the Elite Eight. Last year, Justin Simon took a ‘DNP’ — did not play — in Arizona’s lone NCAA Tournament game.
Simmons is a little bit different from them, though — he’s a projected NBA draft pick, even without the playing time. DraftExpress projects him as a second-round pick in the 2017 draft, and it’s easy to see why: He’s a 6-foot-6-inch guard with a 45-inch vertical leap and the ability to shoot 3-pointers.
His future beyond this season is unclear. Right now, his teammates say he’s still important.
“We’re going to need him, and we need him now,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “I just told him to stay the course and be ready when your name is called.”
Added Alkins: “A lot of guys would be pouting since they’re not playing, but Kobi just wants to win at the end of the day. With team success comes individual success, and he knows that. His time is coming, there’s going to be a moment in this tournament when we need him to step up big and he’s going to do it big.”
Simmons showed flashes of brilliance in UA’s first-round win over North Dakota. He dunked shortly after checking into the game, and later blocked a shot.
He reverted against Saint Mary’s, however, playing just 6 minutes and shooting 0 for 3.
“It’s a humbling experience,” Simmons said. “I’m excited to play out there. It’s fun. Anything for my teammates and for my team to win.
“I try to come out there and do the best job I can do and try to help my team get the win.”