Entering the AAU basketball season, Kobi Simmons was billed as the University of Kentucky’s top point guard target for the class of 2016.
Quite a bit has changed in the past few months.
Coach John Calipari sent out scholarship offers to De’Aaron Fox and Dennis Smith Jr. – two other five-star point guards in the 2016 class – and longtime UK target Malik Monk has said that the Wildcats have told him he can run the point in college, too.
As a result, several reports have indicated that Calipari has cooled on Simmons.
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Not so, says his father.
“It’s just funny to me that people think that,” said Demond Stephens. “Cal talks to me. Kenny (Payne) talks to me. We talk every day.”
Stephens knows the recruiting game.
He’s spent the past several years as a coach with the highly successful Atlanta Celtics AAU program, which featured Simmons among other elite prospects this summer and has sent many players to major colleges in years past.
Stephens has helped some of those players manage the recruiting process, and Simmons has been there to see how it works.
So their reaction to hearing that Calipari offered scholarships to players at the same position wasn’t one of alarm or even surprise.
They understand it’s strictly business.
“How can a kid at this level of basketball expect a coach not to recruit other kids?” Stephens said. “He hasn’t signed a letter of intent. He hasn’t signed any scholarship papers. They still have to keep (their schools) going. And he can’t go to all of them, so they all have to recruit.
“You can’t expect these coaches to just sit and say, ‘Well I’m going to pray that you’re going to pick me.’ No. ‘I’m going to go recruit, and if you pick me, you do. And if you don’t, I’ve got another one.’”
This weekend, the 6-foot-5 prospect from the Atlanta area will fly to Lexington for his first official visit – another sign UK’s interest remains serious. He’ll also take official visits to UNLV and Ohio State next month.
Stephens says the plan is to announce a college decision a few days after the trip to Columbus. He also said the recruitment will come down to those three schools and Georgia, the home-state program that Simmons has already visited with his family.
UK, Georgia, Ohio State and UNLV are still standing because they employ four coaches who didn’t give up on Simmons, even when he had a couple of rough stretches during the AAU season.
Stephens said some coaches stopped calling when Simmons would have a bad week, then picked up the phone later on when he turned things around. The four on his list never dropped contact.
That’s true of Calipari, who extended a scholarship offer in April and has stayed in touch.
“He says he loves his size, his speed and athleticism,” Stephens said. “And he thinks he can push Kobi to be the best Kobi he can be. The thing with Cal is you know he’s going to push. You pick Cal, you’re picking the best of the best.
“When a kid goes to Kentucky, he’s gotta have tough skin.”
Stephens’ familiarity with UK’s basketball program started well before the Calipari era. He was raised in Cincinnati before moving to Atlanta 15 years ago.
As a kid, he watched the Cats.
“I rooted for Kentucky, I’m not going to lie,” he said. “I grew up watching Kenny Walker, Dicky Beal I go way, way back. My friends and I have a rule – we can never change our favorite teams in life.
“And I really like Cal – I’ve been liking Cal since Memphis. And Kenny Payne, he’s the best of the best when it comes to teaching and knowledge. You gotta love it.”
Though Simmons dropped in Scout.com’s updated player rankings Wednesday, he’s still considered the No. 18 overall prospect in the class of 2016.
“He’s got good size for the position – he’s more of a true combo guard than a true point guard,” said Scout.com’s Evan Daniels. “But he’s athletic, he’s fast, he’s got potential as a defender. He’s very good at slashing to the rim and scoring – comfortable attacking and tossing up floaters.
“He’s got a lot of upside.”
Stephens echoed Daniels’ “combo guard” analysis with an explanation of Simmons’ game that sounded like something straight out of Calipari’s recent “position-less basketball” pitch. “Whatever a coach tells you to do, you do,” Stephens said.
Fitting in will be no problem, whether he goes to UK or one of the other three schools on his list.
Simmons played for one of the most talent-stacked teams on the summer circuit, won a state high school title this past season and has competed in numerous all-star camps around the country that involved co-existing with his five-star peers.
“Every team he’s ever been on has been a great, great team,” Stephens said. “If you ever make the NBA, there’s not a sorry person on your team. If you ever make it to high-level college, there’s not a sorry person on your team.
“So you better teach your child how to deal with other great people early, or he’s not going to be successful in the end.”