Throughout the history of the game, when an athlete returns to the game of basketball after an extended period of absence, it can be a difficult adjustment. An adjustment that will often end in mixed results. Ben Simmons is that athlete. He’s entering the next chapter of his career in Brooklyn knowing he has someone, a fellow Aussie, who has had his back from the beginning.
The newest Net star joins a Nets organization filled with connections to the Land Down Under. In fact, the newest Net’s relationship with Patty Mills can be traced all the way back to Australia when Mills was a youngster. The Nets veteran guard has known Simmons’s family since he was a kid and has watched the three-time NBA All-Star grow up ... on and off the hardwood.
“I knew him in Australia. Him and his family well go back to when I was a kid. So close with him and his family,” said Mills Thursday night on his long-standing relationship with Simmons. “I watched him grow up not only on the court but off the court as well. So yeah, go back a fair bit.”
This is the first time in their basketball careers Simmons and Mills will play together on the professional level. Both players began their basketball journeys at the Australian Institute of Sports (AIS) and took different paths to the league.
Mills came to the states to play college basketball after spending his youth in the AIS program. He split time at Canberra’s Marist College and Lake Ginninderra College after making a name for himself in several youth basketball tournaments and with the U-level Australian Boomers squad. He played his collegiate basketball at Saint Mary’s in California.
Simmons, whose father was born and raised in the South Bronx and played 11 professional years overseas in Australia with six franchises, played basketball and Australian football growing up. Putting his focus on basketball in the Land Down Under, The younger Simmons moved to the states in January of 2013 to attend the prestigious high school, Montverde Academy in Montverde, Florida. A stellar high school career, that included playing with the likes of D’Angelo Russell, established him as a consensus No. 1 recruit in the nation in 2015. He went on to play his one-and-down collegiate career with LSU and was selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft by the Sixers.
Coming out of LSU, the Aussie guard received enormous praise with comparisons to LeBron James topping them all.
After the trade deadline blockbuster became official Thursday night, Mills expressed his excitement to finally play with his fellow Aussie on the same team. He was not economical in his praise.
“A tenacious defender who is physical, strong, and hangs his hat on that side of the floor. And then his freakish ability to be a point guard, make plays, [is] an unbelievable passer, and push the pace in doing so. He’s someone that, from a basketball standpoint, is very excited to play with, and I have been for a long time,” said Mills on playing with Simmons in Brooklyn. “So this is a good opportunity there. If anything, I’d say that we’re getting a very hungry, excited basketball player.”
It hasn’t been an easy go for Simmons throughout his six-season NBA career. He missed his entire rookie season with a foot injury. After returning to the hardwood, he was named the 2018-19 NBA Rookie of the Year. He followed it up with All-Star nods in the last three seasons. Then, in the closing stretch of the 2020-21 season, there was a breaking point in his young career.
Despite concluding his fifth season with his third All-Star selection and finishing second to Rudy Gobert in Defensive Player of the Year balloting, his shooting woes in the 2021 NBA playoffs began what would be a lengthy — and expensive — holdout from the Sixers. It was not pretty.
After shooting a miserable 34.2 percent from the free-throw line in the postseason and passing up an open dunk to avoid going to the line in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, he came under heavy scrutiny from his teammates, his coaches and the famously fickle fans in Philly. That scrutiny led the 25-year-old to decide he no longer wanted to play in Philadelphia. Saying he needed to deal with mental health issues, Simmons requested a trade which became a holdout that cost him $19 million in fines .. each missed game costing him $360,000.
How bad was it? At a Philadelphia Flyers game, he was the subject of obscene chants! Last week, a sullen Sixers fan walked through downtown Philly with a sign that read, “F**k Ben Simmons.” Even Thursday, Joel Embiid went on line to post a famous meme that had been captioned: “I stopped by one of my biggest hater’s funerals today just to make sure they were dead.”
A long six months later, the Simmons saga in Philly has come to an end and the three-time All-Star is reviving his NBA career up the New Jersey Turnpike and around the corner in Brooklyn. While the former Sixer was holding out, Mills was checking up on with his fellow Aussie. The veteran guard says Simmons is not only in a “really good place” but returning to NBA basketball “really hungry.”
“He’s in a really good place right now. [I’m] speaking to him a fair bit lately seeing what he’s been up to in terms of staying ready, getting his body right, and getting game-ready, I guess. It was good and pleasing for me to see and feel where he’s at,” said Mills. “From that standpoint, you get a really hungry person whose looking forward to playing basketball again, and especially with our group.
For Simmons, there won’t be an immediate return to the basketball court. After the deadline transaction became official, Steve Nash made it clear that the newest Net will undergo a ramp-up. The Nets head coach added he believes Simmons, along with Curry and Drummond, will join the team in Miami for Saturday’s game. Nash also mentioned he has spoken to Simmons the most out of his three new acquisitions.
“I think Ben has a lot more physical and onboarding stuff to go through since he hasn’t played for a while,” said Nash on Simmons’ ramp-up. “Hopefully we’ll be able to meet those guys and get them around the guys down in Miami.”
When Simmons does make his return and steps on the hardwood, it’ll mark one of the most notable returns and team debuts in recent memory. A return filled with mixed emotions. One thing Simmons will know from the get-go is that he’s got a fellow Aussie who is thrilled to play with him.
“I’ve got his back. I’ve always had his back, and now I have the opportunity to be with him. I’ve had his back from afar and I wish I was with him earlier in his career, but being able to do what I can do from afar,” said Mills on Simmons overcoming criticism coming back to playing. “I’m excited to be able to be with him in this aspect and help him in any way necessary. That’s how it’s always kinda been.”
Mills won’t be alone. Kyrie Irving was also born in Melbourne to an expat hooper from the South Bronx and who’s had his own issues with fans. Moreover, the Nets staff is filled with other Boomers as we’ve noted more than once. Adam Caporn, the Long Island Nets head coach, worked with Simmons as a young player at the AIS.
“At the end of the day, I’m excited for this,” said Mills. “And I know he is as well. For us to come together, I think it’s going to be great for both of us. For me to continue to learn things and share with him as much I can as a professional and as an athlete.”