Most Nets fans’ eyes tonight will be focused on Ben Simmons, who after a holdout in Philly and back surgery in Los Angeles is making his long-awaited debut with the Nets in Brooklyn. He is, in effect, the Brooklyn Nets big off-season acquisition, a three-time All-Star taking to the court at Barclays Center for the first time.
“Ready to go,” Simmons said after Wednesday’s shootaround. “Very excited. I’m looking forward to getting out there and playing. We got a great group of guys here, and we’re ready to roll.”
Simmons did offer a bit of restraint for fans who think he will walk onto the stage at Barclays Center and be the exactly the same player he was before last season. It may take time.
“Slowly getting back to who I am and who I’m supposed to be,” Simmons said about his progress through a full training camp and preseason. “Still taking a lot of time. I’ve only played four games — but over time I’m going to get there.”
He noted that what he can brings on both ends of the court — aggressiveness — is key to the Nets meeting their grand expectations.
“If I’m not aggressive, this team’s not going,” Simmons said. “Like if I’m not pushing the ball, if I’m not finding my guys then those easy shots that we’re getting now are not going to happen. So I got to be the motor.”
Simmons said he’s taking pride in the defense and hopes it will be contagious.
“There’s not many guys who can do that,” Simmons said about his hopes. “I take that opportunity when it comes to guard the best players in the world, so it’s a pretty good job.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of just me individually,” Simmons said. “I think I definitely want to come out here and set the tone. We speak about that a lot as a team, but I feel like everybody’s on the same page. So it doesn’t really matter whether it’s me, Kev, Royce. or [Nic Claxton] — I think everybody has it in them and wants to do their job defensively.”
Over the past several days, both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have spoken about how they’ve offered to support Simmons.
“Yeah man, you get some anxiety because you know that your peers are doing this every day,” Durant said. “If you don’t do something every day, and while someone else is, you can lose a little bit of confidence. You can lose some of that skill that you acquired because you’re not putting in consistent work just like your peers are. I got a little bit of anxiety, not knowing, for sure. The train don’t start going because you are injured.
“The whole league keeps moving. The game keeps evolving, so you don’t want to get caught behind. When you’re not playing NBA games you feel like you’re left out a bit. So you want to make sure your game is right, conditioning is right, and everything is solid like before you left. You can have a little anxiety creep in at times. It’s all about going out there and just playing your hardest when the ball is tipped.”
“I don’t think I have to talk to him a lot because I understand from a human level what it’s like to go through being nervous or having anxiety or overthinking something before it happens,” said Irving. “It’s the first game of a long season. We don’t want him to put too much unnecessary pressure on himself. It’s just go out there and play basketball. Hoop. Work on what we’ve been working on in preseason and use these 82 tour dates to our advantage and just get ready.
“We’ve got to dance every night, 82 games, and perform well. I like to think of it as going on a tour, get to be able to bond. With Ben being one of our leaders on our team he’s going to get a chance to really work through circumstances that many people don’t think he can work through and they’re just waiting for him to fail. I want to focus on the love and keeping everything positive around here and making sure he has the tools and keys for success which is eliminating distractions No. 1.”
His head coach, who Simmons has praised by both name and as head of a coaching staff, thinks similarly: the more support, the better.
“I’ve always just supported him,” Steve Nash said. “I know it’s not easy. We want to push him to be more aggressive, to make mistakes so he can go through it faster. But at the same time I tell him I understand. It’s uncomfortable to be aggressive when you don’t have your rhythm, timing, confidence or at least a long kind of sample size or runway to produce and to try.
“I think that trial and error period is so important, and he’s still in it. I’m glad he took some steps the last week or so but that’s still a process you have to undertake because you can’t just get your game back in three weeks of preseason. So I think he’s on a good trajectory, I think he’s got a lot of work to do and I think that will understand and recognize how difficult it is to take a year off of actual NBA games and be at your best.”
In a number of season previews, Simmons has been somewhat dismissed. Is there simply leftover animosity among those who write the previews or is it simply the default position that any player who misses a year for whatever reason must be treated with skepticism. That turned out to be a bad bet two years ago when Durant returned from a far worse malady and played some of the best ball in his career.
As Jalen Rose, among others, said, it’s gotten to a point that Ben Simmons is now underrated.
- Ben Simmons Flooded with Support from Star Teammates and Coach Ahead of Season Opener - Chris Milholen - Sports Illustrated
- Ben Simmons excited, says he has to be Brooklyn Nets’ motor - Nick Friedell - ESPN
- No Sleep Till Brooklyn: Can Kyrie, KD, and Ben Simmons Survive This Season? (Podcast) - ESPN