Just 17 video games into the season, the Brooklyn Nets have generated sufficient ugly headlines for a decade. There was Kyrie Irving’s promotion of antisemitic film, his numerous flavors of non-apology, his ensuing suspension, his RPG-style side-quests assigned by Nets proprietor Joe Tsai, the firing of coach Steve Nash, Kevin Durant’s grim recitation of his teammates’ names. Under the fold lurked some lower-grade dysfunction: the skin-crawlingly unhealthy early season play of Ben Simmons. No one anticipated a lot from him. All expectations across the 26-year-old, who hadn’t performed an actual sport since his notorious no-dunk in Game 7 of the 2021 Sixers-Hawks Eastern Conference Semifinals, have since been razed. But he regarded chippy in preseason appearances. He’d had time to get well from his May surgical procedure on a herniated disc in his decrease again. He nonetheless managed to slide effectively beneath zeroed expectations, taking part in inventively ineffective basketball for a $35-million-dollar-man, and it wasn’t till his 22-point, 8-rebound, five-assist exhibiting in opposition to the Grizzlies on Sunday night time that redemption appeared potential.
In his debut with the Nets, Simmons fouled out with 4 factors in 23 minutes of play. Through his first six video games of the season, he had 24 fouls and 37 factors. Even by his common scoring-averse requirements, the basketball hoop appeared to him an eldritch horror—flip your again to it, flee it in the event you can, do not even contemplate direct gaze. He airballed a layup in an early matchup in opposition to the Mavs. Ja Morant, treating him like a easy little one, baited him into fouling out. Kyrie Irving was overtly hollering at him to shoot the ball. After these six abysmal outings, Simmons was sidelined for 4 video games with knee soreness. Upon his return, he began coming off the bench for the primary time in his vexed profession. A report from Shams Charania and Sam Amick final week stated that “teaching workers and gamers have been involved about his availability and degree of play, with some questioning his ardour for the sport,” which, no shit. As a Simmons apologist, I discovered myself returning to his highschool spotlight reel, a testomony to 2 darkish information: Not solely has he did not develop a discrete basketball talent since then, he had additionally misplaced his zest for attacking the rim, which is the one factor that retains him on the ground in an NBA sport.
Signs of life appeared final Thursday in opposition to the Blazers. Simmons got here off the bench for 15 factors (making all six of his discipline objectives), 13 rebounds, and 7 assists in 32 minutes. It regarded, if not just like the Ben Simmons of previous, then like a decent cog for the Nets’ shooting-rich offense. Simmons would not transfer the best way he used to and opponents do not even feign guarding him exterior the paint anymore. The job description has modified. Whether the basis challenge is bodily or psychological, he is in no state to assault a ready half-court protection the best way he did as a Sixer. Rehabilitating him as a usable participant should contain utilizing him as a big-bodied screener, dribble-handoff man, and dunker-spot lurker. For the primary time as a Net, he convincingly match his new function, and locked up Damian Lillard on the opposite finish. Once the Blazers resorted to hacking him in crunch time, he made three of 4 free throws. (He’s nonetheless 53 p.c from the stripe on the season, with as dire a taking pictures kind as will be present in skilled basketball, and I hope he will get over himself and shoots righty quickly.) “I’m getting there,” stated Simmons after the sport, and at this level, even the slimmest declaration of confidence is a revelation.
On Sunday, Simmons was reinserted into the beginning lineup to face a Grizzlies squad sans Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, and Jaren Jackson, Jr. That alternative wasn’t wasted. He hit 11 of 13 pictures, together with some nimble finishes on the rim, though he is nonetheless a methods off from dunking together with his bygone ferocity. If he has a singular present as a participant, it is drawing on his pace and power to conjure up semi-transition appears the place they should not exist. Whether he took these drives straight to the chest of Steven Adams—an encouraging signal that he is rising comfy with contact—or flung the ball round to shooters, the outcomes had been glorious. The commerce to amass Simmons was after all pushed extra by bitter desperation than by particular tactical want, however right here, lastly, was a blueprint for a way the Aussie may truly assist them. He had 20 factors by way of three quarters. By the top of the sport he was feeling himself sufficient to try a difficult cut-dribble in transition, and whereas the ball type of bonked him within the chest, it nonetheless discovered its method neatly into the taking pictures pocket of Yuta Watanabe, who sunk considered one of his 4 threes of the night time. After letting Memphis grasp round for much too lengthy, the Nets put the sport away within the closing body.
A win over a depleted Grizzlies squad in November will not persuade anybody that the 8-9 Nets’ woes are behind them. Simmons as point-center ceaselessly poses a roster development puzzle: For all his abilities guarding the 1 by way of 4, any massive with a semblance of a put up sport can squish him at will. Brooklyn would not have a rim protector who shoots capably sufficient to share the ground with Simmons, and if they’ve any ambitions for the postseason, they will most likely want to amass one someway. In the meantime, they will have to assist Ben refine his restricted however highly effective toolkit, and hope that he wakes up someday remembering that he’s among the many quickest 6-foot-10 folks to ever reside. The Nets go to Philly on Tuesday. At least the man’s feeling ok to inform jokes.