'The most hostile environment he's probably ever going to be in': Ben Simmons returns to Philadel...

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Ten days ago, the idea of Ben Simmons making his return to Philadelphia and actually playing in a game was unfathomable.

The Brooklyn Nets had just played the LA Clippers and Simmons looked wholly out of sorts: timid, uncomfortable, unsure of his role on the team. The Nets beat the Clippers 110-95, but Simmons was barely a footnote in the box score, finishing with two points in 14 ineffectual minutes.

The next night against the Los Angeles Lakers, Simmons was a late scratch with knee soreness. Such a late scratch, he spent 10 minutes behind closed doors after the game with Nets general manager Sean Marks, the two discussing how Simmons needed to communicate better to avoid a repeat of the situation.

But Simmons has emerged from that meeting with Marks, and that dreadful 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' past three games, including an efficient 11-for-13 from the floor in Sunday's win against the Memphis Grizzlies. His defense has started to resemble its previous excellence, and his rebounding has some verve to it. Even his on-court demeanor has improved.

It is exactly the kind of progression Simmons and the Nets were hoping for this season. The best possible lead-in to the deluge of boos and emotions he'll face when he steps on the court to play at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT) to compete in his first game against his former team since a messy exit that marred all of last season.

And yet nobody, not even Simmons, can tell you how he'll react once he enters the arena and faces his former teammates -- and a familiar crowd eager to welcome him back.

"My mind is telling me, 'Go be you,'" Simmons told ESPN. "But then my body's trying to catch up. So it feels like I'm just progressing each day, each game. Just building up.

"I'm still trying to get a 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've got to relearn a lot of things, rebuild. It takes time, but you move through it."

Simmons continues to work with a therapist on how to approach challenges like Tuesday night's game, but he has not extensively discussed his mental health beyond an appearance on former teammate JJ Redick's podcast during the preseason.

"It was nice to have that off my chest," he says of the podcast appearance. "Because it was tough when I was dealing with it, and it's still just day by day."

Tuesday will be his biggest challenge yet.

"It's probably the most hostile environment he's probably ever going to be in," Nets coach Jacque Vaughn says. "And to get over this hurdle would be monumental to where he's at right now and getting back to the form that 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 extricated him from the franchise that had drafted him No. 1 overall in 2016. But he was in street clothes that night, not in uniform. And even that was uncomfortable and intense.

"It was a bum-rush from the time we left the hotel," Nets teammate Patty Mills says. "We had to go another way out of the hotel, then people were following our bus."

Inside the arena, fans serenaded Simmons with boos and expletive-laced chants at every opportunity. There was extra security around the Nets' bench, extra guards in every section. Mills, who has known Simmons since he was a teen prodigy in their native Australia, stood protectively by his side the entire night.

"What I've always said to him is, 'Let's just remove basketball for the moment and see who the people are who are genuinely supporting you,'" Mills says. "I think that unfortunately he just didn't have enough of that from what I saw from afar. So for that game, I just wanted to make sure he had that support. That no matter what happens, I'm there. Literally by your side."

The Nets took a chance on Simmons in the trade that sent James Harden to Philadelphia because they believed -- or at least hoped -- he would find his way through the mental and physical issues that have derailed his last two seasons.

They also believed they had the right infrastructure in place to support him.

"He's a focal part of our team," Marks says. "Supporting Ben and having a real partnership with Ben ... getting him playing at the level that he's capable of is critical to this team having success. 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's been moments where I've felt quick, fast, strong," Simmons says. "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 is 10 games into his head-coaching tenure after the Nov. 1 departure of Steve Nash, made a point of meeting with Simmons while the team was on the road last week.

"I've really just been trying to learn about him and what he needs," Vaughn says.

If the team had been home, Vaughn says he would've invited Simmons 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. "And so for me to listen to him, about where he wants to get his game to, that he believes he's going to get it back to an All-Defensive level. To hear those words means that we're going to work on it together."

The challenge for Vaughn is to earn his player's trust in a way that doesn't place Simmons' needs over the team's. To build their relationship without hurting his credibility with others.

If Simmons wants to start, as he had 282 of the 287 career games he'd played in, he has to earn those minutes.

If Simmons wants to be in closing lineups, he has to show the ability to make free throws under pressure.

"I've told him, 'I'm going to always do what's best for the group,'" Vaughn says. "That's my job as a coach. I'm not trying to cozy up to him to gain his trust. It's more, I'm consistent with my approach with him every day. And so he sees what consistency does."

Vaughn brought Simmons off the bench after he'd come back from a knee injury that forced the 26-year-old to have his knee drained and undergo platelet rich plasma therapy on two separate occasions.

While he was out, the Nets had found success with Nic Claxton in the starting frontcourt. So Vaughn wanted to stick with what had worked rather than plugging Simmons back in as a starter. But that meant moving to the second unit and playing as a backup center, something he'd never done in his career. It was uncomfortable and a blow to his confidence.

He struggled. But the meeting with Vaughn seemed to clear the air.

"I told him I want to see him do extremely well and for him to see what consistency does," Vaughn says. "He's improved in that, whether it's shooting extra free throws, doing your vitamin work consistently and at a pace that replicates the game.

"Vitamin work is your daily touch-up with your individual coach. Shots you may get into the game, themes that I might give the coach to work on. Practicing those things so there's carryover to the game, [and] taking them seriously, because it's important for your teammates to see you in that environment working."

Since that disappointing weekend in L.A., and meetings with both 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 a game as the Nets went 2-1.

Perhaps most important, though, were the free throws he made at the end of the overtime win against the Trail Blazers. Portland had copied what the Atlanta Hawks had so effectively done in the Eastern Conference playoff series in 2021 that sent this whole situation into a spiral: intentionally foul Simmons and dare him to make free throws.

It was a direct challenge.

"I didn't flinch and didn't look at my coaches. I looked at him and had no inkling of taking him out," Vaughn says. "That's part of the trust between him and I, that we're building."

Simmons made three of four.

"That was huge for him," Vaughn says.

Tuesday night in Philadelphia will be huge as well. There is no way to know if Simmons is ready for all that he'll have to face. There is no way to know how he will react to it, either.

"Overall there's only so much you can say," Simmons says. "Unless you had an experience like that yourself."

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