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Sean Marks: Ben Simmons is ‘a big, big part’ of the Nets future

2022 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

While the Nets were battling to avoid a sweep against the Celtics, Ben Simmons was nearing a potential return for Game 4. He had gone 4-on-4 and 3-on-3 but suddenly things changed. On the morning of the game, he woke up with back soreness for the second time in three days and that was the closest the 3-time NBA All-Star got to making his long-awaited Nets debut.

Then, in a bit of a surprise, Simmons went under the knife in Los Angeles to alleviate the pain caused by the herniated disc. The outpatient surgery was deemed a success and on Wednesday, Sean Marks spoke about his young star’s quest to return to the NBA hardwood, detailing a conversation he had with him about his importance on the roster.

“I think Ben had a tricky build-up to be quite frank. He got here and there was a setback, obviously, as he went through his ramp up and we saw him on the court. We saw him participating in 3-on-3 and 5-on-5 games with the stay-ready group. We were hoping, just like Ben was, he was going to be out there. He was hoping more than anybody that he could come out and contribute for the team,” said Marks at the Nets’ end-of-season press conference at HSS Training Center.

“We’ve had lengthy discussions about how much he can contribute and how much he really means to our roster. There’s a gaping hole and he fits some needs that we’ve talked about in the past.”

Simmons initial recovery should take three weeks to be followed by a rehabilitation program. In the medical update provided by the team after the surgery, the expectation is that Simmons will be ready by the start of next season’s training camp, which will open in the last week of September.

On Wednesday, Marks offered some background on why the Nets and Simmons decided on surgery. After the soreness returned, Simmons underwent an MRI, apparently his first since shortly he joined the team in late February or early March — the Nets never revealed the specific date. The procedure revealed the “herniation had expanded,” as Marks described the results. There was no other, or better, option than surgery. According to Marks, Simmons is feeling great and relieved nearly a week after the operation.

“It got to be too much and we had another follow-up MRI and we could see the herniation had expanded. At that point, there was really nothing but surgery that was going to fix this,” Marks said. “I can tell you from the communications I’ve had with him multiple times since the surgery, he’s feeling relief already and feeling great. He knows that it goes back to that five months, he has a big build-up to get ready and contribute.”

“Regarding Ben post-surgery now, I don’t want to speak for him but I can sense there’s a relief,” Marks added. “There’s a new lease on life, so to speak. When you are able to take a problem and say that should be fixed and move that out of here and now it’s on to the rest.”

2022 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

That’s only crossing half the bridge, of course. The 25-year-old has been dealing with a mental aspect to his return. His struggles with mental health stem back to his final year with the Sixers and not just his problems with Philadelphia and its fans, as we reported.

While Marks would directly comment on what the team will need to do to make sure Simmons is mentally fit to retake the court, he laid out his ideal plan to get Simmons more comfortable ahead of his stepping on the hardwood.

“We are doing everything possible we can to get him around our group. That is the key. He needs to be in here, smell the gym again, around his friends, around his family and to participate in this and let us help him build a culture together. Build up together, build him back up. He’s a big, big part of this,” Marks said.

“He fits a lot of holes, plugs a lot of holes that we think we potentially have with him, in there it’s a different dynamic out there. It’s a different dynamic for not only his teammates and what they’ll be asked to do in the roles they have to cover. So they can put people in places where they were honestly brought here to do and not try to fill a different role.”

While Simmons will rest two more weeks before beginning his rehabilitation, Steve Nash went in-depth about the role he envisions the three-time All-Star can serve with Brooklyn. Nash, who stated that he’s been in the office every day since Brooklyn’s Game 4 elimination, suggested that the defensive star could play point guard and center, among other positions.

“I think he plays both [point and center]. I think the game’s become pretty positionless. I think the assets on the floor are varied so I think he’s going to handle the ball, and initiate offense particularly in transition,” said Nash. “He’s an incredible playmaker. But we have the luxury that Ben can also be a roller, playmaker out of the pick and roll.

“He’s just such a well-rounded, versatile athlete and skilled, player that I think it would be limiting to say, ‘hey you’ve got to handle the ball all the time. You have to facilitate the offense all the time.’ I think that’s what’s special about him is the varied skills he brings to the table, so yes he will facilitate and be the point guard. He will also sometimes be the center. Other times he will be the guy that’s just playing position-less basketball trying to create offense in the halfcourt, so I think for me it’s playing to his strengths which are varied and all those things are a part of it.”

In a Nets offense that more than any other NBA team relied on iso-heavy basketball from their two stars, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Simmons’ impact on the offensive end could be huge ... and needed. Other than relieving a large burden from both Durant and Irving in generating their offense, the addition of Simmons should finally put Brooklyn’s two stars at their best: scoring within the flow of the offense rather than creating for themselves.

In fact, Simmons has ranked in the top six in assist per game averages in three of his last four seasons he played. Before this season, he had assisted on more 3-point field goals than any other NBA guard. That’s good news on a team with so many deep shooters. His elite ability to finish at the rim will also add to Brooklyn’s offensive arsenal.

Simmons facilitating pairs well with his high-profile defensive play — guarding the opposing team’s best scorer. He can defend 1-through-5. More importantly, it decreases the Nets need to lure a point guard (or a center?) in free agency this summer.

Indeed, Brooklyn’s roster could look quite different next year depending on how they deal with their nine free agents ... and how deep Joe Tsai will dive into the luxury tax. In the meantime, the Nets head coach acknowledged he didn’t like how the team played last year and looking ahead to a very, very important offseason, Nash said Simmons can serve as the key that can unlock a lot of doors.

“This [offseason] allows us an opportunity to look at [offense] under duress,” Nash said. “Regardless of who’s available, how do we want to play? I wasn’t happy with the way we played. How do we want to play? How do we want to attack? Where do we want to improve?

“I don’t think any of us loved the way we played and want to improve, so this is an opportunity for us to look deeper at how that can come to fruition, how we can put together a style of play where regardless of the continuity, regardless of availability, we feel what we learned over the last year or two puts us in a position to be better, to play better, to take those lessons and put them onto the court and in good use.”

Despite the surgery, not all of Simmons critics are convinced they need to apologize for what they said about his decision not to play in Game 4. Shaquille O’Neal, along with Reggie Miller and Charles Barkley, had all blasted Simmons with O’Neal referring to his decision not to play as a “punk move.”

On Tuesday, in speaking with Taylor Rooks. Shaq said he didn’t feel a need to say he’s sorry. Instead, the Hall of Famer turned TNT analyst said Simmons should have called him.

“If I said something that was hurtful, maybe he should call me and say, ‘Hey, you said this.’ I’m intelligent enough to stop time and say, ‘Okay, when did I say it?’ And then I say, ‘You know what, that wasn’t right.’”

O’Neal said that a mix of speculation and facts has informed his commentary.

“But right now, we just going on speculation — and some facts, because I’ve got some people where he is. So I know a lot and I see a lot. But he hasn’t said why he’s not playing,” O’Neal continued.