NEW YORK – Ben Simmons smiled Sunday night at Barclays Center when asked what emotions he expects to feel when he returns to Philly.
“I’m ready to play,” he said.
The Brooklyn Nets forward then added, “Is there something going on?” The media room erupted in laughter as Simmons provided some levity before his first regular-season game appearance against the 76ers at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Wells Fargo Center.
In case you haven’t heard, Simmons is arguably Philadelphia’s most despised athlete after refusing to play for the Sixers last season and forcing a blockbuster multi-player trade to Brooklyn.
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Fans booed him when the Sixers hosted the Nets on March 10. However, Simmons was in street clothes that day and the rest of the season, sitting out with back and mental issues. But Sixers fans are expected to have more animated responses when Simmons takes the court for the first time and when he touches the ball.
Simmons is aware of this, and made it clear when he discussed whether enough time has passed for bad feelings surrounding his departure from Philly to calm down.
“In Philly?” Simmons said with a questionable look, prompting more laughter. “I know what’s coming. It’s part of the game. Philly fans, one thing about Philly fans is that they are incredible. They’re die-hard Philly, and they’re all Philly, no matter what. I respect that with the city. It is a sports town.”
Simmons actually spoke with Nets teammate Yuta Watanabe on Sunday before Brooklyn’s 127-115 win over the Memphis Grizzlies about what it’s like to play in Philly. “It’s an incredible opportunity to put on whatever jersey it is,” Simmons told him. “It’s Philly, and it’s a unique experience.”
Nets post player Markieff Morris knows a lot about Philly. The 12-year veteran is from North Philly, and he and his twin brother, Marcus, led Prep Charter to the PIAA Class AA state title in 2007.
He expects Simmons to be booed.
“But it is what it is at this point,” Morris said. “It’s been so long. He still calls Philly home. … I know he’s not scared, but he knows what to expect. It’s not like he hasn’t been back since then. He just hasn’t played. “
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Simmons’ brother, Sean Tribe, still lives in the area, and many of his best friends are from Philly. On Sunday, Simmons mentioned a couple of times that he has “a lot of love for that city.”
“But I know he goes there with a chip on his shoulder,” Morris said. “And if we see Ben like we saw tonight, Philly’s in trouble, everybody’s in trouble. [bleep]not just Philly. [Teams] are in trouble if we get this Ben through the rest of the year.”
As Morris referenced, Simmons was unstoppable against the Grizzlies. Previously playing passively, Simmons had struggled to start the season and was demoted from the starting lineup. He also dealt with knee and back problems.
But he finished with a season-high 22 points on 11-for-13 shooting along with eight rebounds and five assists in what was his third straight performance.
Earlier in the week, Simmons was the Nets’ only bright spot in Tuesday’s 153-121 road loss to the Sacramento Kings. He came off the bench intent on attacking the basket, scoring in double figures for the first time this season. Simmons finished with 11 points, five rebounds and three assists.
On Thursday, he had a 15-point, 13-rebound, seven-assist effort in a 109-107 road win over the Portland Trail Blazers. However, the highlight came when the Blazers used a hack-a-Ben strategy, sending the poor foul shooter to the foul line. Simmons responded by hitting three of four attempts.
But Sunday’s performance was undoubtedly his best of the season. Simmons, who was a reserve in the previous five games, got the start because Nic Claxton missed the game for personal reasons, and he effectively stole the spotlight from teammate Kyrie Irving, who played his first game since Nov. 1 after Brooklyn suspended him without pay to link to share the link to a film related to anti-Semitism on his Instagram and Twitter accounts.
“I think right away you saw a strength that he played with,” Nets coach Jacque Vaugh said. “Whether it was his pace and his attack on the rim. And it was a relentless attack against [the basket] and really just spreading the basketball and the tempo he created for us tonight, it’s going to make it harder for people to guard us.”
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Simmons, who plays a hybrid point-center position in Brooklyn, is gaining more confidence and getting more comfortable. Asked what has worked well for him in the last three games, he said it takes time to get back into a groove.
“I’m trying to build my consistency, stay focused on what I can do,” Simmons said. “I know what I can do. I know what I am capable of. I’m not surprised.”
Neither are his teammates.
“I expect this from Ben,” Kevin Durant said. “So when he plays well, I’m not going to get excited about it.”
Meanwhile, Morris was adamant that Simmons will continue to play aggressively and at an elite level.
“He’s not coming back,” he said. “We will not let him go back. He shouldn’t have shown us. You can’t let him go back. We have to hold him accountable now. … There is no way. I got him. I won’t let him.”
That brings us back to what is expected to be a hostile environment on Tuesday. When asked how he expects Simmons to handle the emotional environment, Vaughn replied “what emotion” to even more laughter in the room.
The coach believes the environment will be great for Simmons.
“It’s just like Portland, where he had to go up and make free throws when they tried to foul him,” he said. “He did three out of four. It’s the same kind of mental and physical hurdle that he has to overcome, which is great.
“He wants his teammates behind him. He’ll have a coach that believes in him and overall we’re looking forward to going and playing in Philly.