Arizona freshman Justin Simon started following a path similar to departing senior Gabe York this season, but he’ll finish it somewhere else.
UA announced Monday that Simon would transfer from the Wildcats after he played in just 24 of Arizona’s 34 games and skirted the outside of the regular-playing rotation.
Simon leaves UA with just six returning players for next season, assuming forward Elliott Pitts does not return to the team after he left the Wildcats in February for unspecified reasons. They would have just five returners if Allonzo Trier departs for professional basketball, a leap Trier is still considering.
“My decision to transfer is centered on playing time,” Simon said in a UA statement. “I would like a bigger role as a basketball player. Hopefully, I will be able to find this at my next program.”
Simon also thanked UA coaches, players and “incredible fans” for everything they did for him, and UA coach Sean Miller returned a compliment to the well-liked, ever-smiling Simon.
“Justin did an outstanding job in our program this year,” Miller said in a statement released Monday morning. “He was an excellent student and teammate while representing our program in a first-class manner at all times. I look forward to helping him in any way I can as he transitions to another university to reach his goals.”
A combo guard who showed potential to become a strong defender, Simon averaged 7.5 minutes a game in his 24 games played. He averaged 2.3 points and 1.2 rebounds.
But even with York leaving this spring, Simon would have had another battle for playing time next season against incoming five-star guards Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins, along with returners Kadeem Allen and Parker Jackson-Cartwright.
Both Simmons and Allen are combo guards, while Jackson-Cartwright averaged 21.2 minutes as a part-time starter at the point this season. Alkins is expected to play mostly on the wing.
Simon was on the fringe of UA’s regular rotation early in Pac-12 play this season, earning nine minutes in the Wildcats’ 87-84 loss at UCLA on Jan. 7 and receiving praise from Miller after the Wildcats put up an uninspired first-half effort and allowed the Bruins to shoot 51.4 percent.
“He did a good job at times when he was in the game, and hopefully he can give us more,” Miller said of Simon after the UCLA game. By subbing more “we were trying to make a run and keep energy. I thought it worked, and you know what? That’s how it’s going to be from this point forward if you screw up on defense.”
Two days later, Simon played eight minutes in UA’s four-overtime loss at USC. He also appeared in every other game in January, but played in just three during the month of February and didn’t play at all against Colorado in the Pac-12 Tournament or against Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament.
Simon told the Star earlier this month that he “loved every second” that he’d been at Arizona, and said York has been a good mentor. York didn’t play in 20 games as a freshman but made the All-Pac-12 second team as a senior this season.
“Gabe’s been through some things that I’ve been through,” Simon said earlier this month. “You just fight through it, and give them a reason to play you, and don’t give them a reason to not play you.
“He’s been a really good mentor for me, and a good leader for us. Just looking at all his success he’s had this year just makes me look forward to my future. As Coach said, my better days are ahead of me, so I’m going to honor the process and believe in that.”
If Pitts does not return and Trier leaves for pro ball, UA will actually have only four scholarship players returning from on-court roles this season, since forward Ray Smith has not played in nearly two years because of knee injuries.
But Miller is on the verge of putting together a sixth straight top-five recruiting class.
The Arizona coach has a signed letter of intent from Finnish forward Lauri Markkanen, along with commitments from Simmons and Alkins, who are expected to sign with UA next month.
Last weekend, UA hosted five-star wing Terrance Ferguson of Texas, and is believed to be leading the pack for his services. The Wildcats are also still in the mix for Michigan forward Josh Jackson, arguably the nation’s top player. Jackson is also considering Kansas and Michigan State.
Jackson, Ferguson and Simmons are all taking part in McDonald’s All-American Game activities this week in Chicago, with the game scheduled for Wednesday night at 6 p.m.
Both Ferguson and Jackson are expected to make their decisions soon, and Jackson told Scout.com in Chicago that, “I know in my heart I know where I want to go now.”
Meanwhile, Simmons posted a short video of Jackson on Twitter in which Simmons appeared to playfully introduce him as a “New U of A commit” during a break in McDonald’s activities.
“U of A Wildcats, you ready to go?” Jackson said.
“Yup,” Simmons said, smiling. “Yup.”