Basketball feels like it’s only been a part-time job for Ben Simmons ever since his infamous meltdown with the Philadelphia 76ers during the second round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs. Simmons’ career has more or less unraveled ever since he bypassed a wide open dunk in Game 7 of that series: Doc Rivers and Joel Embiid threw him under the bus after the game, Simmons responded by demanding a trade and holding out, and eventually he was traded to the Brooklyn Nets at the Feb. 2022 trade deadline in a blockbuster deal for James Harden.
The Sixers are already on their second iteration of a post-Simmons team this season. Meanwhile, Simmons’ tenure in Brooklyn never really got off the ground because of injuries. He’s played only 48 games out of 211 possible since the Nets acquired him.
On Monday, Simmons was finally cleared to come back to the court for Brooklyn after rehabbing through a nerve impingement in his left lower back. Believe it or not, Simmons looked fantastic.
The Nets beat the Utah Jazz, 147-114, with Simmons playing a key role off the bench despite a minutes restiction. He finished with 10 points, 11 assists, and eight rebounds on 5-of-5 shooting from the floor in only 18 minutes of play, showing off the full breadth of his talents that once made him a three-time All-Star and two-time First-Team All-Defense selection. Watch his highlights here.
This was just Simmons’ seventh game of the season. He’s had lingering back problems since undergoing surgery shortly after the Nets traded for him. While Simmons is still only 27 years old, the fear was that his body was already breaking down on him. It sure didn’t look like that was the case on Monday night.
When Simmons was playing at an All-Star level, he was a 6’10, 240-pound forward with elite speed, incredible defensive impact, and the ability to shine to shine in transition as a passer or a scorer. He sure looked a lot like that player against Utah. Watch Simmons run the break and find an open teammate for a layup:
Watch Simmons dig into the paint and strip Jazz star Lauri Markkanen after shutting down the passing lane. There aren’t many players his size who can credibly defend this far away from the hoop, or turn defense into offense this quickly. That’s always what made Simmons special.
great to see ben simmons back on the floor and contributing, especially on defense, where he had some awesome plays today as an off-ball defender
would be huge for brooklyn if he can return to any kind of form pic.twitter.com/mRkNXSsdXE
— ben pfeifer (@bjpf_) January 30, 2024
Simmons was beaming after the game. When a reporter tried to ask about an early fast break opportunity after he checked in, Simmons quickly responded “it’s always a fast break when i have the ball.”
It’s easy to forget now, but Simmons was supposed to be one of the defining players of the generation born in the 90s (he was born in 1996). The No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Simmons was a no-brainer top prospect throughout his high school career, and despite an uneven one-and-done season at LSU before entering the draft.
I remember being in the gym to watch Simmons at the 2015 McDonald’s All-American practices, alongside the likes of Jaylen Brown, Brandon Ingram, and Jalen Brunson. Simmons was considered the clear top dog in the class, drawing comparisons to LeBron James and Magic Johnson for his size, passing, and open floor speed. Maybe anyone would have failed with those expectations, but for the first four years of his career, Simmons was unquestionably one of the best young players in the league.
Simmons never had a jump shot, but he didn’t need one to thrive. Simmons was so big and so fast attacking the rim. He was unquestionably one of the more versatile defenders in the sport, and he felt like he was one of the better passers, too. His physical and mental collapse in the 2021 NBA Playoffs, where he looked terrified of getting fouled because he didn’t want to shoot free throws, was some combination of the yips, injuries, and the anxiety about the shortcomings in his own skill set all coalescing at the worst possible time.
Simmons has to do a lot more to be considered back, but it sure was a welcome sight to see him happy and healthy and effective on the floor against Utah. This Nets team is falling apart at 19-27 overall, largely becuase they don’t have a lead shot creator. It’s possible Simmons can be that guy when he’s surrounded by Brooklyn’s shooters.
For now, just playing a good game in a short stint is a real cause for celebration.