Wichita State’s J.R Simon fits many of the attributes of a leader on the basketball court. He plays point guard, coaches trust him, he works and he’s a senior.
To that list, add scholarship player to his credentials. WSU coach Gregg Marshall awarded Simon a scholarship at a recent team party at his grandparents’ home in Wichita to reward him for three years of largely behind-the-scenes effort at his own expense.
“The only thing it’s changed is my financial status,” Simon said. “My mentality coming in hasn’t been any different. I feel like I’m a scholarship player — I’m just paying my way.”
Now, however, Simon has that endorsement, that status as a scholarship player. If that makes his voice a little stronger, if it makes his presence a little more significant, it’s helpful for a team searching for leadership. Simon, from Oklahoma City, played in 64 games the past three seasons. Most of his appearances came in blowouts; occasionally he closed the first half or opened the second when foul trouble threatened Fred VanVleet.
The theme of WSU’s preseason has been a search for leadership, in the wake of five departed seniors, and Simon is a part of that picture. Coaches and players already see Simon someone worth listening to and following, because of his experience and work ethic.
“If they can lead, they lead, and that’s one of the things I told J.R. going into the year, ‘That’s something you can really help us with,’” Marshall said at Missouri Valley Conference media day. “I think I would give him a C thus far. But it is harder when you’re not on the floor. I’m not sure if he’s going to play five minutes a game or 15. Or none at all.”
A scholarship opened when guard Peyton Allen left Wichita State for personal reasons. Marshall said WSU petitioned the NCAA for permission to award the scholarship to a current player. He said he was not allowed to use it on a transfer at semester break.
Out-of-state students pay $554.54 per credit hour at WSU. Simon, because he received the financial aid during the fall semester, will receive a pro-rated scholarship for tuition and books.
Teammates say they don’t need to know Simon is on scholarship to listen to him. He’s been in more practices and film sessions than most and in more games than all except Rashard Kelly (70) and Shaq Morris (67).
“He’s the coolest guy on the team,” sophomore Markis McDuffie said. “He’s been talking a lot, even before the scholarship. We all listen to him.”
Simon is most vocal with the new point guards, helping them through expectations and explaining WSU’s offensive and defense requirements for that position.
“When you have that title — scholarship player — it does help you feel like you are empowered more,” he said. “But, even before I was on scholarship, guys spoke to me and coaches spoke to me saying that I can still be a leader and they still respect what I to say. So that changed a little, but not too much.”
In 2006, walk-ons Cameron Ledford and Nick Rogers filled leadership roles on the Sweet 16 team that coaches and teammates considered an important part of that team’s story. Leadership contributions can come from throughout the roster.
“It is hard when you’re a walk-on to try to tell some of these dudes ‘Hey, do this, do that,’ ” Simon said. “Luckily, they have listened to me. That’s made it very nice. And now that I am on scholarship, it does help my mentality, thinking ‘I’m just as equal and I have the experience.’ Maybe I can speak up a lilttle more if I have to.”
▪ On Thursday, Marshall said his starting lineup is far from decided at WSU’s annual Tip-Off Luncheon.
The Shockers play NCAA Division II Augusta (Ga.) on Saturday in an exhibition game.
“We’re going to play nine, 10, 11 guys,” Marshall said. “The guys are producing during the games are going to play the most. That could change from game to game. It’s not important who starts; it’s important who plays well.”
▪ Freshmen guards Austin Reaves and C.J. Keyser practiced Tuesday and Marshall said he is working with healthy roster, a rarity this fall. Reaves (shoulder) and Keyser (foot) have both missed significant numbers of practices.
▪ One of Marshall’s new slogans is “mental intensity,” which he said he borrowed from South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp.
A failure to hustle back on defense is an issue in practice, he said, which means his team gives up layups and dunks because players aren’t concentrating.
“You can be physically intense, but you’ve got to be mentally intense,” Marshall said. That’s probably the hardest thing for young players.”