As a high school junior, D’Marcus Simonds thought he found his team for the next four years. But after an unexpected change, Simonds decommitted from a school he was once certain about.
In a time of stress and in need of a friend, he called Claude Pardue, assistant coach for Georgia State men’s basketball, on a late spring night.
“I remember like it was yesterday,” Pardue said. “D’Marcus called me when he decommitted, and there was one night when he called and said, ‘Coach, I don’t like all these coaches calling me all the time and recruiting me.’”
Less than three months later, Simonds wouldn’t just be calling Pardue “coach” as a friend; he would be calling him coach from the court.
Simonds’ relationship with Pardue was the foundation for him to embark on what would become a historic Georgia State career under Pardue’s guidance.
Simonds’ difficult decision to leave the team he had committed was based on the firing of coach Rick Ray at Mississippi State. That same day Georgia State won one of its biggest games in program history against Baylor in the 2015 NCAA Tournament.
Now – six years and three record-setting seasons later – Simonds will depart as arguably the best Georgia State Panther ever, right alongside R.J. Hunter, head coach Ron Hunter’s son.
With his father as coach, R.J. Hunter was always destined to don the blue and white – but, Simonds wasn’t.
Simonds fate was instead determined in his freshman year of high school – when he met Pardue at a Georgia State basketball camp. Aspiring college players filled the camp to get publicity and impress college programs and coaches.
Simonds had no trouble proving his talent to Georgia State and Pardue who immediately began forming a relationship with Simonds and his family.
Pardue regularly talked to Simonds about life outside of basketball and connected with the people closest to Simonds’ including his high school coach, AAU coach, stepmom and dad. When Simonds eventually committed to Mississippi State, it didn’t change the friendship he and Pardue built.
“Usually as an assistant coach, we’re trying to sell kids on Georgia State,” Pardue said. “Well I didn’t have to do that with D’Marcus because we already had the relationship.”
That’s why he choose to vent to Pardue.
Simonds would be following in the footsteps of T.J. Shipes and Isaiah Williams, who not only played on his high school team but were members of the squad that defeated Baylor the night Simonds’ future would be redefined.
Simonds didn’t feel alone. Shipes and Williams filled him in on Georgia State from a player’s point-of-view. Another familiar face would join the team when his friend Devin Mitchell announced in April that he was transferring in from Alabama.
“I hadn’t heard anything about GSU,” Simonds said. “I just knew it was downtown. That’s all I knew. I pretty much just committed. I swear it was that easy. My homies were here. Devin and Isaiah were here, and they were from my county.”
Simonds and Pardue talk every day at Georgia State; By noon on any given Thursday, they probably already spent three hours around each other.
Their trust in one another has only grown stronger. Pardue compares their relationship to that of and an uncle-nephew.
“R.J. willed us to win the conference tournament,” Pardue said. “He willed us to beat Baylor . D’Marcus had that same thing. Knowing that you could look past that he may not be the best ball-handler, might not be the best decision-maker, he might not be the best shooter at the time, but if he just wills us to win, he’ll go a long way … just like he has throughout his college career.
“…That’s why we wanted him so bad. You could look past all the other stuff why people said he’s not going to be good,” Pardue said.
Pardue could see Simonds’ potential to lead Georgia State basketball to more success.
Simonds plays passionate, in part, because he didn’t always receive love from his home community in Gwinnett County. He suspects it’s because he grew up in tougher situations than most people.
“These are people from my city, people that are supposed to support me,” Simonds said. “When I finally moved my junior year of high school, that’s when I started getting real support like it was supposed to be. Stuff just wasn’t easy for me growing up. I fought for everything I have, basketball-wise, sports-wise and everything.”
Attending college wasn’t an option for him until he earned a college scholarship. After he found his niche in basketball, seven schools offered him full athletic scholarships.
“I’ve always been the same person,” Simonds said. “Some people don’t like it. Some people don’t want to see any of it. Others accept me and welcome me. It’s different when people aren’t looking for something wrong and try to learn who I am. I feel like at Georgia State, they really did that and accepted me. I really love this place and appreciate what they did for me.”
As he leaves, he leaves behind unforgettable memories at the GSU Sports Arena, including the run Georgia State made towards its second NCAA Tournament berth in four years in 2018.
As a tradition before each home game while Simonds warmed up, a fan in section 106, behind the scorer’s table, pointed at him and Simonds pointed back. He also remembers the love Georgia State superfan Sherrill Moss and her husband showed him.
Interacting with fans is his favorite part about playing, even when they criticize him on Twitter.
“I can usually read how he’s feeling and know what to say at certain times,” Pardue said. “When he comes out of the game and he’s frustrated, he sits besides me. We have a good way of communicating. He respects it, and we respect each other.”
His college career is on borrowed time. The junior will declare for the 2019 NBA Draft after the Panthers’ final game this season.
And he’s only guaranteed to play in two more.
The Panthers’ shot at the NCAA Tournament is over if they lose in the Sun Belt Conference tournament this weekend. They’d, then, play in the National Invitational Tournament because they won the Sun Belt’s regular season title.
At the 2018 NCAA Tournament, he’s showed his poise. Two Sun Belt tournament wins stand in the way of a return to the big dance for Georgia State and Simonds.
“I look at stuff like that differently,” Simonds said. “When something gets real serious and it’s a lot on the line, I don’t get different. It’s just business. It’s not about fun at that point.”
He is 104 points away from breaking the record of total points scored in a Georgia State career – currently held by Hunter with 1,819 points. Pardue doubts Simonds knows he’s that close to breaking the record.
This wouldn’t be the first Georgia State record he breaks by surprise. It wasn’t until the coaching staff told Simonds that he knew the record for the most field goals made was his.
“He’s done everything for Georgia State,” Pardue said. “And it’s amazing because he doesn’t care about any of it. He cares about the championship.”
Simonds’ motivation during his freshman and sophomore seasons was trying to live up to R.J. Hunter’s stardom. And he did, winning conference freshman of the year and player of the year – just like Hunter did.
Since then, Simonds has matured and finds motivation from within.
“I went through a lot over these last few years,” Simonds said. “I was actually just talking to my girl. College turns you into who you really are and shows your true colors. I took a lot from this place.”
He’s a Georgia State legend and did it his own way.
Update (03/14/2019 at 11:45 a.m.: This story has been updated to include that if the Panthers lose in the Sun Belt Conference tournament this weekend they’re guaranteed to play in the National Invitation Tournament because they won the Sun Belt’s regular season title.)