Ten days ago, the idea that Ben Simmons would return to Philadelphia and actually take part in the game seemed unfathomable.
The Brooklyn Nets had just played the Los Angeles Clippers, and Simmons looked completely out of his element: timid, insecure, insecure about his role on the team. The Nets beat the Clippers 110–95, but Simmons barely made a footnote in the points standings, scoring two points in 14 inconclusive minutes.
The next night against the Los Angeles Lakers, Simmons arrived late with a sore knee. Such a late scratch, he spent 10 minutes behind closed doors after a game with Nets general manager Shawn Marks and they discussed how Simmons should communicate better to avoid a repeat of the situation.
But Simmons came out of that meeting with Marx and that awful weekend in Los Angeles with his best basketball in years.
After failing to hit double figures in any of his first nine games, Simmons has scored 11, 15 and 22 points in the Nets’ last three games, including an effective 11-of-13 from the floor in Sunday’s victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. “. . His defense began to resemble his former perfection, and his rebounds became more dynamic. Even his behavior on the court has improved.
That’s exactly the kind of progress Simmons and the Nets were hoping for this season. The best possible introduction to the torrent of hoots and emotions he’ll face as he takes to the court to play at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday (7:30 pm ET, TNT) to take on his first game against his former team since an unsuccessful departure that overshadowed the entire last season.
“I always told him, ‘Let’s put basketball away for a while and see who the people who truly support you are.’
Nets quarterback Patty Mills talks about teammate Ben Simmons
Yet no one, not even Simmons, can tell you how he’ll react when he enters the arena and faces his former teammates – and the familiar crowd longing for his return.
“My mind is telling me, ‘Go be yourself,'” Simmons told Sportzshala. “But then my body tries to catch up. So I feel like I’m just getting better every day, every game. I’m just building up.
“I’m still trying to get into the rhythm, find my pace. It’s easy to be like… before the injury [I] was one of the best defenders [in the league], and now, I have a lot of things to relearn, rebuild. It takes time, but you get through it.”
Simmons continues to work with a therapist on how to approach issues such as Tuesday night’s game, but he hasn’t discussed his mental health in detail outside of an appearance on former teammate JJ Redick’s podcast during preseason.
“It was nice to get rid of it,” he says of the podcast appearance. “Because it was hard when I dealt with it and it’s still just day after day.”
Tuesday will be his biggest test yet.
“It’s probably the most hostile environment he’s ever been in,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn says. “And getting over that hurdle would be monumental for where he is right now and getting back to the form he wants to get back to.”
Simmons returned to Philadelphia as a Nets player on March 10, just a month after the trade that pulled him out of the franchise that made him No. 1 overall in 2016. But that evening he was in street clothes, not uniform. And even that was uncomfortable and stressful.
“From the moment we left the hotel, we were furious,” says Nets teammate Patty Mills. “We had to go the other way from the hotel, then people followed our bus.”
Inside the arena, fans serenaded Simmons with screams and swears at every opportunity. There was heavy security around the Nets bench, with additional guards in each section. Mills, who had known Simmons since he was a child prodigy in their native Australia, defended him all night.
“I always told him, ‘Let’s just put basketball away for a while and see who the people who truly support you are,'” Mills says. “I think that, unfortunately, he just didn’t have enough of this from what I saw from afar. So for that game, I just wanted to make sure he had that support. No matter what happens, I’m there. your side.”
The Nets took the risk of buying Simmons in a trade that sent James Harden to Philadelphia because they believed—or at least hoped—that he would find a way out of the mental and physical issues that had derailed him for the past two seasons.
They also believed that they had the necessary infrastructure to support it.
“He plays a key role in our team,” Marks says. “Ben’s support and a real partnership with Ben…getting him to play at the level he is capable of is critical to the success of this team. the ability to make many people better.”
In other words, the Nets are counting on him, which isn’t always easy to do.
“There were moments when I felt fast, fast, strong,” says Simmons. “But it’s like a roller coaster. It’s up and down. And it’s on me. I have to stay with it, be consistent and just push through.”
Vaughn, who has played 10 games as head coach since the departure of Steve Nash on Nov. 1, faced Simmons last week while the team was on the road.
“I was just trying to find out about him and what he needs,” Vaughn says.
If the team were at home, Vaughn says he would invite Simmons over to his house to build rapport. But with the team on the road and the pressure on both of them to change things was so urgent, he invited him to his Sacramento hotel room to talk before the game.
“Sometimes I feel like guys just want to be heard,” Vaughn says. “And so for me to listen to him about where he wants to take his game, that he believes he will bring it back to the level of all-around defense. Hearing these words means that we will work on it. together.”
Vaughn’s job is to earn his player’s trust in a way that does not put Simmons’ needs ahead of the team’s interests. Build your relationships without damaging your authority with others.
If Simmons wants to start, having played 282 of 287 career games, he needs to earn those minutes.
If Simmons wants to be in the bottom lineup, he needs to show the ability to take free throws under pressure.
“I told him, ‘I’ll always do what’s best for the band,'” Vaughn says. “This is my job as a coach. I’m not trying to suck up to him to win his trust. Moreover, every day I adhere to my approach to it. And so he sees what constancy does.”
Vaughn removed Simmons from the bench after he returned from a knee injury that required the 26-year-old to have his knee drained twice and undergo platelet-rich plasma therapy.
While he was gone, the Nets were successful with Nick Claxton in the starting frontcourt. So Vaughn wanted to stick with what had worked rather than re-engaging Simmons as a starter. But that meant going to the second block and playing as a backup center, something he never did in his career. It was uncomfortable and hurt his confidence.
He fought. But meeting Vaughn seemed to clear things up.
“I told him that I want him to do really well and see what consistency does,” Vaughn says. “He has improved in that, whether it’s extra free throws, doing his vitamin work consistently and at a pace that repeats the game.
“Vitamin work is your daily adjustment with your personal trainer. Shots that you can use in the game, topics that I could let the coach work on. [and] take them seriously because it’s important for your teammates to see how you work in this environment.”
After that disappointing weekend in Los Angeles and meetings with Marks and Vaughn, Simmons is averaging 16 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists — close to his career averages in all three categories — in 29 minutes of play when the Nets led 2-1.
Perhaps most important, however, were the free throws he made late in an overtime victory over the Trail Blazers. Portland copied what the Atlanta Hawks did so effectively in the Eastern Conference playoff series in 2021, which spun the whole thing into a spiral: deliberately fouling Simmons and forcing him to take free throws.
It was a direct challenge.
“I didn’t flinch or look at my coaches. I looked at him and had no idea how to take him out of the game, ”Won says. “That’s part of the trust between him and me that we’re building.”
Simmons did three out of four.
“It was very important to him,” Vaughn says.
Tuesday night in Philadelphia will also be great. There’s no way to know if Simmons is ready for everything he’ll have to face. How he will react to this is also unknown.
“On the whole, you don’t have much to say,” Simmons says. “Unless you’ve had a similar experience yourself.