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Jacque Vaughn on Ben Simmons: ‘I look forward to coaching him healthy’

In talking with NBA TV and the Nets beat writers, Jacque Vaughn made some news about where Ben Simmons stands in Nets plans.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Brooklyn Nets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

In the most optimistic discussion of Ben Simmons prospects since he was shut down at the end of March, Jacque Vaughn said Friday night at the NBA Summer League that he had spoken to Simmons in last few days, leaving him “excited to coach a healthy Ben Simmons.”

Vaughn spoke first to NBA TV during the first half of the Nets loss to the Cavaliers in Las Vegas.

“It’s been great: the correspondence, being able to check-in with Ben. It’s been great as the other players are getting ready for the year, summertime, getting better” said Vaughn when asked about Simmons’ mental and physical state. “I look forward to coaching a healthy Ben Simmons. That’s exciting for me. The team is excited to have him healthy, being part of our program and moving forward. He has an innate ability to impact the basketball game on both ends of the floor. So, we missed that in the Philly series and looking forward to it.”

Vaughn also included Simmons when talking about the Nets “core group” along with Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Nic Claxton, all in the same age group of 24- to 27-year-olds, he noted. Vaughn also included Spencer Dinwiddie in the discussion, calling him the “elder statesman” of the group at 30.

Talking later with the beat writers who are covering the Summer League, Vaughn said he had been in communication with Simmons in the last few days to check up on his progress.

“I’m not going to get into any dates or anything. My expectation is I look forward to coaching him healthy and our entire group being able to start the year together and go through training camp together,” said Vaughn when asked about his expectations for Simmons. “Those things are important for our group.”

Asked for more specifics about where Simmons is at in his rehab, is he playing 5-on-5, for example, Vaughn said he didn’t believe anyone would object to that description.

“He is on the court. I think he would be okay if I told him to use those terms. No setbacks.” added the head coach. “I talked to him a day, two days ago, maybe something around there. We’ll continue to see him [improve] as our whole group moves through the offseason.”

Vaughn did not provide any other details he had gleaned from his conversation with Simmons. Simmons has been training and working out at the University of Miami in recent weeks with Royce O’Neale and David Duke Jr., among others, joining him.

Simmons of course hasn’t played since February 15, days after the deadline deals that sent Kevin Durant to Phoenix and Kyrie Irving to Dallas while bringing in Bridges, Johnson, Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith. After undergoing back surgery on May 5, 2022, Simmons apparently returned to play too soon and wound up with both back and knee issues that plagued him the whole season until he was shut down officially on March 25. He wound up playing in only 42 games while averaging only 6.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists, all well below his career averages.

Not long before he was shut down, Vaughn had a different take than he did in Las Vegas, talking about how frustrated he was as a coach.

“It’s going to be some work that we have to do,” said the head coach back then. “Because, you just take a look at what the lineups could potentially look like. You put another big next to Ben, then you got to figure out what the spacing is around him. Then, if you put another playmaker next to him, then you got to figure out what Ben looks like without the basketball. Then, if you go small with Ben, then you have to figure out can you rebound enough with him?”

Just last week, NetsDaily reported that Simmons and the Nets had mutually agreed to postpone his dream of playing for the Australian national team. He won’t play in the FIBA World Cup whose training camp begins the first week of August. He’s still looking forward to the Olympics next year in Paris.

The Nets and their 6’11” guard/forward decided that cutting short his rehab by three weeks would not be worth the additional reps he’d get playing in Asia starting with training camp the first week of August and running through September 10. Sean Marks had publicly targeted September 1 as the date when he and the Nets performance team believed that he’d be ready to go. Training camp for the Nets begins the first week of October with the first exhibition game October 9 vs. the Lakers in Las Vegas.

The Nets are reportedly happy with Simmons recovery. One league source told NetsDaily that Simmons is in as good a physical and mental state as he has been since joining the team in March 2022, the big return on the trade that sent James Harden to Philadelphia. Vaughn’s comments are another indication of the Nets optimism about Simmons.

A return by the 26-year-old Simmons would be a big boost for the Nets hopes in 2023-24 and beyond. When healthy, as Vaughn noted, Simmons can one of the league’s top players. He was selected to the NBA All-Star Game three times, the All-Defensive Team twice and the All-NBA team once. Of course, all that happened before he decided to hold out for the 2021-22 season, seeking a trade out of Philadelphia where he was blamed and hounded for the 76ers loss in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals in 2021. He also is owed $78.2 million over the next two years, $37.9 million this year.

Vaughn spoke as well as about two other players from his “core,” Johnson and Bridges. Asked about Johnson’s decision to re-sign with Brooklyn for four years and nearly $95 million in salary and likely bonuses, Vaughn spoke approvingly of the move and Johnson.

”An incredible human being that’s also good at basketball. So that combination for our franchise moving forward at the age that he is he’s just going to continue to get better, be a great teammate. So really fortunate to move forward with him.” said Vaughn of the 27-year-old forward.

In talking about Bridges, Vaughn seemed to defend the Nets decision not to send him out for picks, turning a retool into a deep rebuilding.

“He fits with where we are as an organization,” he said in describing Bridges’ place in the organization. “The timeline that we are in. The age that he is, his ability to take responsibility on both ends of the floor is pretty unique to see. He is invested in his teammates, so those things are hard to come by in this league. And when you get the chance to have an individual who loves the game, loves being in a team setting, wants to represent a whole community, that’s Mikal Bridges.”

As for the off-season, which has seen the Nets get far younger, more athletic, Vaughn reiterated what Marks has said about retaining the core while making incremental changes.

“Overall, I think you see a shift in our team mentality, “Vaughn said. “No Patty (Mills), no Seth (Curry), no Joe (Harris), no Yuta (Watanabe). So overall, the shift that we talked about at the end of the year, I think you’re starting to see that as an organization.”