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‘Desperate’ Brooklyn Nets welcome Ben Simmons back into the fold

No matter how many times it happens, you have to get a little excited about Ben Simmons returning to the court. Right?

Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Ben Simmons is BACK.

After Brooklyn Nets Head Coach Jacque Vaughn said Simmons would have a “high likelihood” of returning to the lineup for Monday’s game against the Utah Jazz, Simmons is now listed as “AVAILABLE,” no strings attached.

That designation followed a full practice on Saturday for Simmons, where he got up and down with the G League Long Island Nets. The Aussie — out since November 6 with a nerve impingement in his lower left back — said of the practice: “It was great. I feel great. It was good to just be on the floor and get up and down, and play and get some live situational things going for me. So, I’m excited to be back and looking forward to it.”

Simmons isn’t the only one looking forward to his return, though. Cam Johnson, back in the lineup after a one-game absence for personal reasons, spoke at Monday morning’s shootaround. And yes, Ben10 suiting up again was all the buzz.

“I’m excited,” said Johnson. “He’s a big piece of what we want to do. You know, I only got to play the first game of the season with him, and even then I was kind of fresh back. So it wasn’t really, necessarily, full-go. So I’m really excited to get back on board and re-establish that chemistry and the way we want to play.”

And while there’s no guarantee Simmons will be the best version of himself after a 38-game absence, Johnson did little to temper expectations, saying the max-contract player is “looking like himself again in workouts” and that “everything that we want to do as a team, he fits that mold.”

That includes getting 3-point shots up, even if Simmons doesn’t take any himself. Sixty percent (24-of-40) of the point-forward’s assists have led to 3-point buckets, music to a shooter’s ears.

“One thing you know about him is he’s looking to create for others, so it’s all about getting into windows and making yourself available,” said Johnson, who scored five points on only five field-goal attempts in his last appearance. If there’s one teammate who Simmons can elevate in his return, the Nets are hoping it’s Johnson.

It could also be Nic Claxton, though the two lefties are a more harmonious pair on the other end of the floor. Simmons is rejoining a Nets team that, despite their 3-9 record in January, has a thriving defense. No, really. In the new year, Brooklyn’s defensive rating is sixth-best in the league, per NBA.com.

Their recent success on that end comes after a slow start to the season, and coincides with switching more ball-screen actions, rather than playing predominately drop coverage. But according to Claxton, the defensive improvement can’t just be attributed to a shift in scheme: “I would say that the switching probably has something to do with it, but we’ve also been in drop a little bit too. We’ve just all been more connected in general ... I think that’s what we should have been towards the beginning of the year, but now, everything’s starting to come together on the defensive side of the ball.”

Still, adding a 6’11” guard to a switching defense just feels right. And in Claxton’s mind, bringing Simmons into the mix is only going to be a positive: “I think it just adds more versatility to the group in general, just to have another guy who’s who’s used to switching, somebody I’m used to playing with. I feel like we did some really good things on defensive side of the ball last year, so just being able to continue to add to that is going to be good.”

As we approach the two-year anniversary of the Simmons’ arrival in Brooklyn, many Nets fans remain skeptical of the three-time All-Star. After all, Simmons has appeared in just 48 games with the franchise, and just six this season after a considerable preseason hype train.

So, is the optimism surrounding this Ben Simmons return wholly contrived? Not quite. He is still by far the most accomplished Net, boasting All-Defensive First Team and All-NBA Third Team nods in addition to his All-Star selections.

Even beyond his pedigree, Brooklyn is looking for any reason to get excited during the dog days of the schedule. The All-Star break may be within reach, but the Nets can’t take their foot off the gas pedal. They haven’t earned the right to do so.

Thus, Claxton is looking forward to “having [Simmons’] energy, fresh legs out there. I mean, we’re pretty desperate right now, we need wins, we don’t have time to be on cruise control right now. You know, we’ve been taking a lot of losses, so we need to definitely come out locked in and be ready to go.”

With Dorian Finney-Smith headed to the sidelines after spraining his left ankle in one of his best performances of the season, Simmons’ contributions won’t just be gravy; they’ll be vital.

He may not be coming back to the smoothest waters, but it’s Ben Simmons. Playing once more. Trying to help a team that needs all the help it can get. How could you not get a little excited?

Said Cam Johnson: “You know, our guy’s back. We haven’t had him in a while. Our guy’s back, and hopefully, it should be a lot of fun.”