Fred VanVleet motioned for his teammates to clear the lane. J.R. Simon gulped. And then VanVleet, the former Wichita State All-America, initiated the Shockers’ newest walk-on.
Four years and one earned scholarship later, Simon laughs at the memory along with fellow walk-on Zach Bush. But that summer day in the WSU gym, during a pick-up game, Simon didn’t laugh. He wondered what the heck he’d gotten himself into.
“[VanVleet] took it as a joke, that a walk-on was guarding him, so he harassed me,” Simon says. “He picked me up [defensively] full court, stole the ball a couple times, backed me down to the post and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing here?’”
VanVleet, now with the NBA’s Raptors, laughs at the memory. “I do it to all the new guys,” he says. “I think his was worse because we were like, ‘Who the hell is this kid, and why is he here?’ So I put him through the fire to see if he'd last. Now, he's one of my closest friends.”
Across the court, Bush, a year older and coming off a redshirt season, “couldn’t stop laughing,” he says. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Thank God I’m not a point guard, I couldn’t bring the ball up against Fred either.’” (In their defense, most guards struggled with that task.)
But Bush knew well the doubt flooding over Simon. The fall before, when Bush showed up for his first individual on-court workouts, the intensity, speed and physicality overwhelmed him. “I literally felt like I was melting,” he recalls.
Now they’re seniors who lead from the bench, and the only on-court holdovers from Wichita State’s magical 2013–14 season, when the Shockers entered the NCAA tournament at 34–0 (they would lose to national runner-up Kentucky in the Round of 32). Bush and Simon average less than a combined seven minutes per game, but are charged with the task of playing program historians, reminding their younger teammates about what a mid-major can do, and the work it takes to get there.
First though, they had to learn it themselves.
A Wichita native, Bush got to the university just before the 2012–13 season, after a detour at Division-II Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. An All-State player at Eisenhower High, Bush signed with Washburn in April, and shortly after arriving on the Topeka campus in the summer was diagnosed with mononucleosis. His illness, coupled with a dislike of the Division-II school, prompted him to transfer to Wichita State and walk on. (Shockers coach Gregg Marshall says Bush redshirted his freshman year because Washburn would not release him from his scholarship) One year later, Bush had a Final Four ring on his hand.
Then came Simon. An Oklahoma City native with grandparents who lived in Wichita and were regulars at Shocker basketball games, Simon had played AAU basketball with Wichita State junior forward Shaq Morris, also of Oklahoma City. When Morris committed to Wichita, he convinced Simon to walk on too. So Simon messaged Bush on Twitter, asking what it was like to be a non-scholarship player at WSU.
“That first workout I did, I called my parents afterward and said, ‘This might have been a mistake,’” Bush says. “I mean, I was literally going up against grown men my first year, because we had Carl Hall, who had missed a year or two so he was like 23 or 24! A part of me wanted to tell J.R. about that but you know, you’ve gotta let people figure stuff out for themselves. I didn’t want to be the one to crush his dream of playing Division-I ball.”
Both had considered playing at a junior college—the Jayhawk Community College Conference, within driving distance of both their homes, is one of the best leagues at that level—and Bush says when you play high school ball in the Midwest, “lots of jucos come calling.” But it wasn’t for them.
“I knew right off the bat I didn’t want to go to junior college because those guys, they’ve got some dog in them,” Bush says. “At juco you’ve gotta grind a little harder and let’s be honest, I’m more of a pretty boy.”
Simon echoed his sentiments. Though recruited by a handful of D-II and D-III schools throughout the Midwest and Texas, he remained committed to playing D-I. “I may not play as much, but I knew the overall experience would be more worth my time,” Simon says.
There was more than a feel-good element, Bush says. He had heard from numerous people around town that he was crazy to think he could ever contribute for one of the top mid-major programs in the country. That doubt fueled him. “Staying here,” he says, “part of it was just that I wanted to prove people wrong so badly.”
Slowly, they both figured out how to contribute. Bush became a natural team comedian, cracking jokes when needed and hamming it up in front video cameras. (Marshall said he’s heard Bush does a spot-on impression of him, but he has yet to personally confirm it). Simon played extended minutes last season with VanVleet sidelined for a month due to injury and over a seven-game stretch recorded 10 assists, three steals and just two turnovers. Despite limited action, they each have an excellent statistic attached to their names: Bush leads the nation in careering winning percentage (55–1, .982), with Simon just behind him (73–5, .936). Their career has been littered with highlights usually reserved for high school All-Americas: An undefeated season, a Final Four trip, a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed.
“Golly, how do you pick a favorite moment?” Simon says. “As a walk-on, you just hope to make the tournament. Our team, we were a one-seed.”
Though most of their minutes come in mop up time now, they’re treated just like starters, Bush says. It does not matter if you are a walk-on or the leading scorer: If you throw the ball away during practice, you can expect a coach to scream at you. That comes mostly from a head coach who believes walk-ons are meant to be more than glorified practice players.
“When I was at Winthrop, my first year as a head coach, we started a walk-on in the first NCAA tournament in school history,” says Marshall, now in his 10th season at Wichita State. “I was hired [at Winthrop] in April and in May, I’m on campus and I see this 6' 7" kid in a pick-up game and then in March, he’s starting for us. I’ve always thought with walk-ons, yeah they can insulate you from injury, but the right ones can grow and expand your roster.”
Marshall says Bush and Simon have been a “tremendous benefit” to Wichita State’s program, and for him, the best part of the journey is that each player, at different times, has been awarded some scholarship aid. Bush got a scholarship for just the spring semester of his sophomore year when money freed up after a Shockers’ player unexpectedly left the team.
Simon was awarded his scholarship in late October under similar circumstances. After a Wichita State player left late in the summer, Marshall petitioned the NCAA to allow WSU to use the open scholarship on Simon for the remainder of the season. Marshall surprised Simon with the news at a team barbeque, held at his grandparents’ home, while Bush watched with a smile stretched across his face.
“Coach had told me earlier that day, and it was really hard to go home and keep it a secret,” says Bush, who lives off-campus with Simon. “I couldn’t stop smiling during dinner because when somebody like a brother gets something they deserve, wow.”
But the best moment might have come later that day, when VanVleet tweeted his congratulations to Simon—and reminded him that he got there partially because of that other walk-on, Bush.