NEW YORK (AP) — The scouting report sounded strikingly similar to the one that described Ben Simmons when he was an All-Star in Philadelphia, not a backup in Brooklyn.
“I’m still fast, I can still jump high, I’m still strong,” Simmons said.
Not last season.
Not when he was so ineffective in his return from back surgery that Simmons couldn’t even protest much when he was bounced first from his normal position, then eventually from Nets coach Jacque Vaughn’s rotation entirely.
“It’s hard for a coach to really trust and believe in you when he’s not seeing it, right?” Simmons said. “And I’m not able to physically do it and he can’t see it, then as a coach I would do the same thing: ‘Well, I’m not going to play you if you’re not able to compete and do the things I know you can do.’”
Simmons’ relationship with Vaughn has healed and it appears his body has, too.
Reinstalled as the point guard, Simmons was moving quickly and decisively again in the preseason after playing just 42 games the last two seasons. It gives the Nets hope that, no longer with Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving, at least they now have the old Ben Simmons.
“He looks in shape, he looks confident and pretty aggressive, and it looks like they’ve got a package of stuff in for him,” 76ers coach Nick Nurse said.
That was apparent right away in the Nets’ exhibition schedule, when Simmons powered past LeBron James on a drive into the lane for a basket early in their opening game against the Lakers in Las Vegas.
If Simmons can keep it up when the games count, Brooklyn will have a player like few others in the NBA, a 6-foot-10 point guard who is quick enough to blow by most players on offense and strong enough to guard any position on defense.
“Ben Simmons going downhill is a problem,” said Doc Rivers, who coached Simmons in Philadelphia and is now an ESPN analyst.
But if the Nets get the Simmons of the last two seasons, when at first he didn’t play because of mental health reasons and then couldn’t play because of physical ones, they will be stuck with a player who is owed more than $78 million over the next two years and is just 5 for 36 in his career from 3-point range, having never developed the jump shot he might need if some athleticism has been lost.
“He has to have his burst back. And that’s the only thing I wonder, is if he can have that,” Rivers said. “If he can’t have that, then he has to create another way of playing and that is going to be hard.”
It certainly didn’t work last season, when the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft averaged career lows of 6.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists. Twice voted to the All-Defensive first team, Simmons also was affected on that end of the floor, fouling out of two of the first three games as his body no longer kept up with his instincts.
Simmons had undergone a microdiscectomy, a procedure to remove a small fragment of a herniated disc, in May 2022. While playing his way back into shape following that, Simmons also developed knee and calf pain that forced him to sit out 20 games last season before a nerve impingement in his back ultimately ended his season in March.
Vaughn, who replaced the fired Steve Nash in November, had decided before then he could no longer wait on Simmons. The Nets were trying to win games and hold onto a playoff spot while overhauling the lineup after dealing Durant and Irving before the trade deadline, and Simmons wasn’t performing the way Vaughn needed.
It wasn’t until they talked this summer, away from the stress of the season, that Vaughn realized it was because Simmons couldn’t, not that he wouldn’t.
“Not like we hadn’t talked about it before, but like I said, during the year I had a standard for everyone and that wasn’t going to change,” Vaughn said. “And so it was hard for me to recalibrate what I was asking of an athlete, when I had seen him before do the things that I was asking.”
Vaughn went to watch Simmons work out in Miami and both men say their relationship is better now. Vaughn assured Simmons, who played as a forward or backup big man last season, that the ball would be back in hands if he could physically handle it.
“So the time, which a lot of times heals a lot of things, ended up healing a lot of uncertainty with Ben and I,” Vaughn said.
Rivers, who compares Simmons to Magic Johnson because of his size and passing ability, thinks a fourth All-Star selection is possible. Simmons, used to his game being scrutinized in both his NBA homes, won’t say much beyond that he is finally healthy again.
“I’m not one to really talk too much in terms of media and things like that when it’s not needed,” Simmons said. “So it’s fun to just come out here and play my game and let everyone else do the talking.”
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