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After missing an entire season and undergoing back surgery, Ben Simmons returns

Brooklyn Nets Media Day Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

After a 15-month hiatus from the court, that included a unique holdout, a trade and back issues that ultimately led to surgery, Ben Simmons, three-time All-Star, two-time All Defense first team, one-time All-NBA selection, will be back in an NBA uniform Monday night and for the first time that uniform will be black-and-white.

He is healthy physically and in a good place mentally, he and everyone around him believe. He is also paired with two superstars and a raft of 3-point shooters, his favorite target as a point guard.

His real debut of course is scheduled for Opening Night on October 19, but Game 1 of the preseason has some extra dash. His debut has long been anticipated, starting with the February 10 blockbuster trade that brought him up the NJ Turnpike and across some bridges. He will go up against the team, the organization that he felt betrayed him. It’s preseason but it’s box office.

No one is more excited than Steve Nash who along with GM Sean Marks is among his biggest fans.

“It’s a lot of fun for me,” said Nash on how excited he is to finally see Simmons play as a Net. “I’m such a believer in his game. He’s such a dynamic, unique player, does so many things while on the basketball court. And I think he’s a great complement to our team. He makes his teammates better at both ends. So just giving him the support and platform to return from the injury and then long layoff, and then allowing him to continually grow with our group. So, it’s very exciting.”

As Brian Lewis notes, it’s been 470 days since Simmons left the mics at the post-game press conference following the 76ers loss to the Hawks in the Eastern Conference semi-finals, 470 days since he and others believe his superstar teammate, Joel Embiid, and head coach, Doc Rivers, “threw him under the bus,” as J.J. Redick said in his podcast interview a week and a half ago.

Rebuilding his reputation in Brooklyn is what this game, the season are about. Once one of the game’s rising stars, Simmons was pilloried by pundits and former players to the point where doubts mounted about his toughness and ability to get a team to the promised land.

Now, in the shadow of two great — and recently controversial — superstars. he gets a chance to fix doubters’ opinions and contribute to a championship run. He told Redick he is up for it.

“I’ll be great,” Simmons said when asked about whether he’s ready on The Oldman and The Three podcast. “I am excited to play with Kev, Ky, Joe Harris, all those guys. We have just an unbelievable team. For me, after the surgery, I knew what it was going to take to get back to where I need to be and I’ve been locked in. it’s been tough and no rehab is easy and it’s a grind but that’s what it’s all about...

“The talent that we have, the type of players that we have we’re going to be able to run the floor. You know we got Claxton who can run, who moves incredibly well. I mean, Kev, Patty, Ky, Joe. We just got Royce, another great 3-and-D guy. I’m missing people.”

Simmons doesn’t miss a lot of people when they’re open. He handed out 996 assists to 3-point shooters in his first three years, second only to Russell Westbrook in the NBA. He also has helped people miss on other teams. He finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting his last season and led the league in steals the year before that.

His strengths are well-known: court vision, underrated athleticism, stifling perimeter defense and a superb basketball IQ. So are his weaknesses: free throw shooting, in fact any kind of shooting. Nash has gone out of his way both following the trade and last week to say he doesn’t care if Simmons takes a shot or not. He’s free too, but with so many shotmakers on his team, he doesn’t need to. His other skills are enough. In Philly, there were even some who admitted fans were obsessed with the mystery of Simmons shooting, our Sixers sister site, Liberty Ballers, calling it Ben Simmons shooting derangement syndrome in an article published Monday morning!

Nash has also said that he could use Simmons 1 through 5 on defense, the 1 or the 5 on offense.

One underappreciated aspect to Simmons return is that for the first time since the 2019-20 season, he’s not experiencing debilitating back pain, pain that caused him to miss eight games not long before the NBA shut down and was in such pain that he vomited on the floor during practice. It was also the reason why he didn’t play in Game 4 of the Nets first round matchup with the Celtics.

“I’m about to play, I’m about to go into Game 4 — I tried to go into Game 4. I’m on the ground, I can’t even move. So it’s a real thing. And for me, it was frustrating because you have everyone saying whatever. But I try to block that out. If I’m hurt, I’m hurt. I’m not trying to sit out.”

Mentally, he seems ready and willing to take on his new role with Brooklyn and he credits the organization for making that happen.

“Its been great,” Simmons told Redick and Alter the week before camp opened. “Obviously, it’s going to be good getting traded for the first few moments, [but] It’s been consistent. The foundation they have is great. Coaching staff has been incredible. Trainers have been great. Everyone’s been ... it’s a very calm place to be but it’s a good environment. Every day, everyone has a happy face on. Everyone just wants to work and is very locked in when you go into that facility.”

His first week of real practice has gotten Simmons even more excited.

“Pretty sure I’m good to go,” Simmons said this week. “[It feels] amazing. I’m getting used to the up and down play, but I feel great. It’s good to be here with you guys.”

It may take some adjustment though. Indeed it is to be expected.

“Naturally I’ve always been one of the guys who can get their fitness up pretty quickly, so that really wasn’t a worry for me,” Simmons said. “It’s the endurance of just playing five-on-five, getting hit up and down. But overall, I feel great.”

As for the free throw shooting, Nash thinks it will work out (careful to separate him and his organization from what happened in the past.)

“I haven’t coached Ben before so I have to wait and see how the year goes, but Ben put a lot of time in on his free throws,” Nash said this week. “He’s actually got a nice touch and we want to fill him with confidence. “To be honest, whether Ben is super efficient from the line or not, I still want him to go to the line.

When Simmons is introduced Monday night at Barclays and again on October 19 vs. the Pelicans, he will get a rousing ovation from the fans gathered there who understand that he could very well be critical to the team’s success, a way for Simmons and Nets fans to forget last season.

As Jalen Rose has said about those 470 lost days, “people forgot how good Ben Simmons is.”

As for Rivers, Simmons former head coach, he says he wants to move on but not before one last swipe at his holdout.

“We’re focused on the guys that want to be a Philadelphia 76er,” Rivers said of facing Simmons. “We’re not going to focus on anyone that doesn’t want to be one.”