Ten days ago, the idea that Ben Simmons going back to Philadelphia and playing a game was inconceivable.
The Brooklyn Nets had just played the LA Clippers and Simmons looked completely out of it: shy, awkward, unsure of his role on the team. The Nets beat the Clippers 110-95, but Simmons was barely a footnote on the scoreboard, finishing with two points in 14 ineffective minutes.
The next night against the Los Angeles Lakers, Simmons was a late ruleout with a sore knee. So late that he spent 10 minutes behind closed doors after the game with Nets general manager Sean Marks, and the two discussed how Simmons needed to communicate better to avoid a repeat of the situation.
But Simmons has emerged from that meeting with Marks and from that terrible weekend in Los Angeles playing his best basketball in years.
After failing to score in 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 efficient 11-of-13 from the field in Sunday’s win against Memphis. Grizzlies. His defense has begun to resemble his previous excellence, and his rebounding quest has some enthusiasm. Even his behavior on the court has improved.
It’s exactly the kind of progression Simmons and the Nets were hoping for this season. The best possible introduction to the barrage of boos and emotions he’ll face when he steps onto the court at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday (7:30 pm ET) for his first game against his former team since a messy outing that marred everything. Last season.
And yet no one, not even Simmons, can tell you how he’ll react once he steps into the arena and faces his former teammates, and a familiar crowd eager to welcome him back.
“My mind tells me, ‘Go be you,'” Simmons told ESPN. “But then my body is trying to catch up. So I feel like I’m making progress every day, every game. I’m just building.”
“I’m still trying to get a rhythm, find my rhythm. It’s easy to be like… before the injury, I was one of the best defenders (in the league), and now, I have to relearn a lot, rebuild. It takes time, but progress is made.”
Simmons continues to work with a therapist on how to address challenges like Tuesday night’s game, but he hasn’t spoken much about his mental health beyond an appearance on former teammate JJ Redick’s podcast during preseason.
“It was nice to get that off my chest,” he says of the podcast appearance. “Because it was hard when I was dealing with it, and it’s still a day-to-day thing.”
Tuesday will be his biggest challenge yet.
“It’s probably the most hostile environment you’re likely to be in,” says Nets coach Jacque Vaughn. “And getting over this hurdle would be monumental to knowing where he is now and getting back to the shape he wants to get back to.”
Simmons returned to Philadelphia as a member of the Nets on March 10, just a month after the trade that took him out of the franchise that had selected him No. 1 overall in the 2016 draft. But that night he wasn’t in uniform. And even that was uncomfortable and intense.
“It was an ordeal from the moment we left the hotel,” said Nets teammate Patty Mills. “We had to take another way to get out of the hotel, then people were following our bus.”
Inside the arena, fans serenaded Simmons with boos and expletive-filled chants at every opportunity. There was extra security around the Nets dugout, extra guards in each section. Mills, who has known Simmons since he was a teenage prodigy in his native Australia, stayed protectively by his side throughout the night.
“What I’ve always told him is, ‘Let’s cut out basketball for now and see who the people are that really support you,’” Mills says. “I think, unfortunately, he didn’t get enough of it from what I saw from afar. So for that game, I just wanted to make sure it had that support. Whatever happens, I’m there. Literally by your side.”
The Nets took a chance on Simmons in the trade he sent to James Harden to Philadelphia because they believed, or at least hoped, that he would find his way past the mental and physical problems that have derailed his past two seasons.
They also believed that they had the right infrastructure to support it.
“He’s a core part of our team,” says Marks. “Supporting Ben and having a true partnership with Ben…getting him to play at the level that he is capable of is critical to making this team successful. That’s on the court, off the court, everything. Physically, emotionally, everything. He has the ability to make a lot of people better.”
In other words, the Nets are counting on him, which isn’t always easy to do.
“There were moments where I felt fast, fast, strong,” says Simmons. “But it’s like a roller coaster. It has ups and downs. And it depends on me. I have to stick with it, be consistent and keep going.”
Vaughn, who has been head coach for 10 games since Steve Nash’s departure on Nov. 1, made sure to meet with Simmons while the team was on the road last week.
“I’ve really been trying to learn about him and what he needs,” says Vaughn.
If the team had been home, Vaughn says he would have invited Simmons over to his house to help establish trust. But because the team was on the road and the pressure on both of them to turn things around was so urgent, he invited him to his hotel room in Sacramento to talk before the game.
“Sometimes I think guys just want to be heard,” Vaughn says. “So, for me to hear, about where he wants to take his game, that he thinks he’s going to go back to being fully defensive. Hearing those words means that we are going to work on it together.”
The challenge for Vaughn is earning his player’s trust in a way that doesn’t put Simmons’ needs ahead of the team’s. To build his relationship without damaging his credibility with others.
If Simmons wants to start, since he’s played in 282 of his 287 career games, he’s got to earn those minutes.
If Simmons wants to be in the closing lineups, he has to show the ability to make free throws under pressure.
“I told him, ‘I’ll always do what’s best for the group,’” says Vaughn. “That is my job as a coach. I’m not trying to snuggle up to him to gain his trust. What’s more, I’m consistent in my approach with him every day. And then he sees what consistency does.”
Vaughn brought Simmons back from the bench after he returned from a knee injury that required the 26-year-old to undergo platelet-rich plasma therapy on two separate occasions.
While he was gone, the Nets had had success with nic claxton in the title box. So Vaughn wanted to stick with what had worked rather than put Simmons back as the starter. But that meant moving him to second unit and playing backup center, something he’d never done in his career. It was awkward and a blow to his confidence.
Fought. But the meeting with Vaughn seemed to clear the air.
“I told him I wanted to see him do extremely well and see what consistency does,” Vaughn says. “He’s gotten better at it, whether it’s shooting extra free throws, doing his vitamin work consistently and at a pace that reproduces the game.
“Vitamin work is your daily touch-up with your individual trainer. The shots you can get into the game, the issues you could give the coach to work on. Practicing those things so that they translate into the game, and taking them seriously, because it’s important that your teammates see you working in that environment.”
Since that disappointing weekend in Los Angeles and meetings with Marks and Vaughn, Simmons is averaging 16 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists, close to career averages in all three categories, in 29 minutes per game while the Nets held record from 2-1.
Perhaps most important, however, were the free throws he made late in the overtime win against the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland had copied what the Atlanta Hawks had done so effectively in the 2021 Eastern Conference playoff series that it sent this whole situation into a spiral: intentionally fouling Simmons and challenging him to take free throws.
It was a direct challenge.
“I didn’t flinch and I didn’t look at my coaches. I looked at him and had no idea to take him out,” says Vaughn. “That’s part of the trust between him and me that we’re building.”
Simmons scored three of four tries.
“That was huge for him,” says Vaughn.
Tuesday night in Philadelphia will also be huge. There’s no telling if Simmons is ready for everything he’s going to have to deal with. There’s also no way of knowing how he’ll react.
“Generally, there’s not much you can say,” says Simmons. “Unless you’ve had an experience like that yourself.”
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‘The most hostile environment you’re likely to be in’ – Ben Simmons returns to Philly