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With D’Marcus Simonds, Georgia State looks like it’s headed back to the spotlight

Ron Hunter and the Panthers had their moment in the sun. With a sophomore star, could it happen again?

NCAA Basketball: Georgia State at Purdue Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

Georgia State’s D’Marcus Simonds is a talented player.

The sophomore initially committed to Mississippi State in 2014, but reconsidered after Rick Ray was fired. Despite other SEC offers, the Georgia prep star stayed home, giving the Panthers a four-star talent and, according to some outlets, the highest-rated high school recruit in program history.

So yes, Simonds is talented. But it wasn’t until midway through his freshman year that he realized how good a college player that talent could make him.

He and the Panthers traveled to South Alabama on Jan. 30 riding a five-game winning streak and sitting at 6-2 in Sun Belt play. Like hot teams will do, they built an 11-point halftime lead before the Jaguars rallied.

“They had come back and taken the lead, and I had a reeled off like seven straight. Just tough, tough finishes and I was just like, ‘I didn’t know I had that in me,’” Simonds said. “‘I’m going to be pretty good.’”

He has a good memory. With just under nine minutes left, and South Alabama within four points, Simonds ripped off seven points in 49 seconds. It was scoring outbursts like that that made him the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year. The slashing, dynamic guard averaged 13.4 points points per game, playing a big role on a team that won 20 games and finished second in the Sun Belt.

A knee injury kept him out of four games beginning in late December. He said watching from the bench helped him understand his team and system better, and when he returned he went on a roll. Simonds scored in double figures in 17-straight games to end the season, all while struggling at times with his jump shot.

“I think he’s the most underrated guard in the country. We did not run one play for D’Marcus last year. Not one play,” Panthers coach Ron Hunter said. “Just to show you how scoring became so easy for him. I don’t know how you guard him, his jump shot is going to get better and we’re working on that this summer.”

To Hunter, there is much more potential in Simonds. He’s reminded of a player he coached at IUPUI that also came to college without a reliable jump shot.

“What he is, honestly, is George Hill. He’s absolutely identical to George Hill. I think there are so many similarities on and off the court,” he said. “I showed clips to D’Marcus of George because George didn’t have a jump shot in college. He started to develop it his junior year. So many similarities, it’s almost eerie being able to coach both of them.”

If that proves out, Simonds himself will be a story in 2017-18 and beyond. But what he represents for Hunter and Georgia State is an even bigger story.

It’s hard to forget Hunter, cast and all, falling off his stool as his son R.J. sunk a three-pointer to beat No. 3 seed Baylor in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. That was the image of a tremendous run of Panther basketball, which included (R.J.) Hunter, Ryan Harrow and 50 wins over a two-season stretch.

What was that, though? Just a magical run aided in part by an ultra-talented coach’s son?

The 20-win season last year, fueled by a new wave of players, suggest the Panthers will remain a Sun Belt power. Departing senior Jeremy Hollowell (15.2 PPG, 5.9 RPG) had plenty do with the success, but so did Simonds and sophomore guard Malik Benlevi (8.5 PPG, 4.2 RPG).

“We had so much success with R.J. and Ryan and then those guys left and people were like, ‘well can you do it again?’” Hunter said. “But if you look that’s what we’ve been able to do, they set a culture for us. It doesn’t matter now who’s in the jersey. Now we’ve got a culture of winning. It’s a hard thing to do but we’ve got that. Those guys started it, now we’ve got that new crop of guys, D’Marcus and Malik and those guys, and they’ve taken that mantle and our freshmen see that.”

Simonds and Benlevi are both from Georgia, along with nine other players on the roster. Keeping local kids home has become a sweet spot for Hunter, in part because of assistant Sharman White, who won 373 games and seven state titles over a 19-year Georgia prep coaching career. That should only get easier with the success of a hyped-up local player like Simonds.

Two more talented Georgia prep products join the team this season in freshmen Josh Linder and Kane Williams, both of whom Hunter says will play immediately. The Panthers also return starting point guard Isaiah Williams (7.7 PPG, 1.9 APG), along with junior wings Devin Mitchell (4.8 PPG) and Jeff Thomas (6.5 PPG).

Dealing with the losses of Hollowell, an All-Sun Belt second teamer, and starting center Willie Clayton will be a challenge, since the senior duo ate up most of the Panthers’ frontcourt minutes. They’ll also need to cut down on turnovers, a problem that plagued them much of last year with a ball-dominant freshman like Simonds.

Hunter says a big leap from Mitchell, who played his freshman season at Alabama, will be important so that defenses can’t clamp down on Simonds. But either way, he likes how his team is made up.

“At the mid-major level you’ve always got to have a guy that is a potential pro if you want to be really good,” he said. “And then you’ve got to have experienced guys, and with this team we’ve got a ton of experience around D’Marcus. That’s why I really like this team, better than most of the teams that I’ve had.”

And Hunter has had some good teams, both at Georgia State and over his 17 years at IUPUI. There figure to be a number of good teams in the league next season, like UT-Arlington, Louisiana, Troy and Georgia Southern.

But with a player like Simonds shining and a pipeline of in-state talent, Hunter seems to have the pieces lined up to have good team after good team, and a program that’s a consistent winner in the Sun Belt.