Ben Simmons plays his best with Nets before Philly trip: ‘I know what’s coming’

Ben Simmons plays his best with Nets before Philly trip: ‘I know what’s coming’

NEW YORK – This is the Ben Simmons the Brooklyn Nets thought they were getting.

On Sunday against the Memphis Grizzlies, the 6-foot-10 point guard did two things he hadn’t done since coming to Brooklyn as the main return in February’s James Harden trade: He sped up the offense and stayed aggressive throughout the game.

His 22 points were a season high and the most he has scored since Game 2 of the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs when he was a member of the Philadelphia 76ers. And in addition to scoring, the diversity of his talents was on full display. He pushed up the pace. He got to the basket. He guarded. He handed out. He played center. And he got into the passing lane to force steals.

Perhaps most importantly, he was suitably selfish, seeking his own shot repeatedly, a stark departure from the open stares he exhibited just weeks ago. At the start of the season, Simmons overfed his teammates. Now they are returning the favor.

“I know what I can do and what I’m capable of,” Simmons said. “I’m not surprised.”

Now, can he do it in perhaps the biggest game of his career? The Nets travel to Philadelphia on Tuesday in what will mark Simmons’ first game at the Wells Fargo Center as a visitor. In March, he sat on the bench with a back injury while Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving blew out Harden and the Sixers. That didn’t stop fans from one of the country’s most passionate sports cities from dressing up in clown costumes, wearing Mister Softee shirts with his face on them and chanting to him throughout the game.

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After playing his best game as a netminder, Simmons sat on the podium for the postgame press conference and was asked about his feelings on Tuesday.

“Ready to play,” Simmons said of his next game. “Is something going on?”

The response drew laughter, but Simmons was comfortable addressing the elephant in the room.

Sunday marked Simmons’ 12th game in net in a season that has already cost him four games due to knee soreness and after undergoing back surgery in May. That’s coupled with a 16-month layoff after spending last year away from the Sixers dealing with personal issues. He enters Tuesday’s game averaging 16 points, 8.7 rebounds and five assists in his last three games on 85 percent shooting. In Philadelphia, Simmons averaged as many points and rebounds as well as eight assists per game while emerging as part of the Sixers’ “process” in 2017. He’s not back to where he was at his peak with the Sixers, but he’s trending that direction.

“I think immediately you saw the power that he played with, whether it was his pace and his attack at the rim, and it was a relentless attack to the rim and really just spraying the basketball,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said afterward. “The pace he created for us tonight will make it hard for people to guard us.”

Simmons said Sunday night that he’s aware of the headlines suggesting he’ll never be the same player, but indicated it hasn’t worried him. He knew his game wasn’t coming back overnight. That, and he’s already played for two different coaches in addition to new faces on the Nets roster. More importantly, he knows he has a way to go. While his improved play is encouraging, the Nets are going to need more from Simmons. The spacing when he’s out there can still be difficult at times, and his defense is still coming into its own.

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“Just stay focused, take it day by day,” Simmons said. “Honestly, it is what it is. You have to take it day by day. For myself personally, I feel that if I start reading everything that happens and get my head psyched out that is not good for me. So for me, I just want to stay focused, take it day by day. I know I keep saying it, but that’s what it is to me; just keep building on good days and stay locked in.”

In Brooklyn, Simmons is being used differently than he was in Philly as well. Vaughn has used Simmons as a small-ball center, something that happened occasionally with the Sixers. Seth Curry, who played with Simmons on the Sixers before being traded to the Nets, said he lobbied Doc Rivers, who is also his father-in-law, to play Simmons at the five when all three were together, but was unsuccessful. Simmons’ third game as a netminder came against the Grizzlies in Memphis on October 24 and saw him score just seven points to go with eight assists and three rebounds before fouling out. Before Sunday’s game, Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said when he scouted Simmons, he looks like a different player than he was in their first meeting.

“His role has changed,” Jenkins said. “Playing the five spot, a playmaker now at five, unleashes a lot of his game regardless of whether he shows. I think he does a good job in transition of pushing the tempo to find assists when you got Curry running out there, you got Harris running out there with Irving and Durant just getting more confidence. Different role, different system at times, and then they switch a lot more, especially with him at the five, so it just continues to bring the strengths out of his defensive end.

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Durant has started the season scoring 25 or more points in all 17 games for the first time since Rick Barry in 1966-67. The Grizzlies game marked Kyrie Irving’s first game since Nov. 1 after serving an eight-game suspension for promoting an anti-Semitic documentary. Simmons has been more available than Irving, but not as consistent as Durant. He remains the team’s X-factor if the Nets are to capitalize on the quickly closing contention window with Durant and Irving.

“I expect this from Ben,” Durant said Sunday. “So when he plays well, I’m not going to get excited about it.”

Simmons’ growing comfort with the Nets extends beyond the court. On Saturday, he was at the Nets’ practice facility in Sunset Park, but for non-basketball-related reasons. It was the culmination of an eight-week program that the Ben Simmons Family Foundation initiated in partnership with RISE to serve the borough’s underserved children. When Simmons was transferred to Brooklyn, he asked his team to look into local foundations and causes that would make good philanthropy partners. With RISE, Simmons helped launch a leadership program that began in late September and focused on promoting social justice and racial equality in addition to providing children with mental health resources.

Simmons, in an exclusive interview with The Athletic after he helped graduate the 20 contestants, he said he has a wide range of causes he supports. He helped raise awareness and donated money to relief efforts from the 2020 Australian bushfires and brought attention to several non-profit organizations in Philadelphia, becoming the face of The Philly Pledge.

Simmons signs shoes at his RISE charity event in Brooklyn. (Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Nets)

“I feel like just wherever I’ve been, and you know obviously being drawn to Philadelphia, that’s one of the things I’ve always wanted to do is give back wherever I’m at,” Simmons said. “Being Australian and having that connection to New York, my dad is from the Bronx. And to be able to give back to the community and play for Brooklyn, I think it’s a responsibility, something I’ve always had, it’s called me when I’ve had the opportunity to give back and do what I can for the community and the kids. “

Simmons surprised the kids with a pair of black and white Nikes, the Nets colors, and watched a scrimmage between the participants on the team’s practice field. His charity themes are similar to his teammate and fellow Aussie, Patty Mills, and Simmons said he often talks to his lifelong friend to bounce ideas off each other and see what the other has been up to. This week, Mills is launching a Division I men’s basketball tournament in Hawaii, where he lives, titled the North Shore Classic, to promote the game with culture and community. But Simmons’ focus is on a different demographic.

“I think the youth is where it starts,” he said. “These kids are going to be the next ones to come up. You want to build leaders and have kids who are confident in building good communities. And that’s where it starts.”

(Video courtesy of Brooklyn Nets)

As Simmons settles into Brooklyn, he will be defined not by adapting to his new situation, but by thriving. For Vaughn, Tuesday in Philadelphia is just another test of his cue to do so. He pointed to the Nets’ win Thursday in Portland where the Blazers hacked Simmons, a career 60 percent free throw shooter, in the second half to beat them from the charity stripe. While Royce O’Neale’s tip-in would end up being the difference, Simmons went 3-for-4 from the line to thwart the Blazers’ plan.

“It’s the same kind of mental and physical hurdle that he has to get through,” Vaughn said. “Which is great. He wants his teammates behind him. He wants a coach who believes in him.

Simmons and Harden traded teams nine months ago, and yet the trade has yet to show any indication of a winner. Harden will miss Tuesday’s game with a strained hamstring and the Sixers (8-8) have an almost identical record to the Nets (8-9). Neither team made a deep playoff run last year. Because of his March visit as a spectator, Simmons was asked Sunday if he thinks Tuesday’s environment will be subdued at all, prompting a facial expression that immediately became a meme.

“In Philly?” Simmons replied. “Come on now. I know what’s coming.”

(Top photo of Ben Simmons: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)

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