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NBA

Ben Simmons Is Clambering Bravely Out Of The Toilet

Ben Simmons dribbles in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Just 17 games into the season, the Brooklyn Nets have generated enough gruesome headlines for a decade. There was Kyrie Irving’s promotion of an antisemitic movie, his various flavors of non-apology, his resulting suspension, his RPG-style side-quests assigned by Nets owner 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 bad early-season play of Ben Simmons. No one anticipated much from him. All expectations around the 26-year-old, who hadn’t played a real game since his infamous no-dunk in Game 7 of the 2021 Sixers-Hawks Eastern Conference Semifinals, have since been razed. But he looked chippy in preseason appearances. He’d had time to recover from his May surgery on a herniated disc in his lower back. He still managed to slip well beneath zeroed expectations, playing inventively useless basketball for a $35-million-dollar-man, and it wasn’t until his 22-point, eight-rebound, five-assist showing against the Grizzlies on Sunday night that redemption seemed possible.

In his debut with the Nets, Simmons fouled out with four points in 23 minutes of play. Through his first six games of the season, he had 24 fouls and 37 points. Even by his usual scoring-averse standards, the basketball hoop seemed to him an eldritch horror—turn your back to it, flee it if you can, don’t even consider direct gaze. He airballed a layup in an early matchup against the Mavs. Ja Morant, treating him like a simple child, baited him into fouling out. Kyrie Irving was openly hollering at him to shoot the ball. After those six abysmal outings, Simmons was sidelined for four games with knee soreness. Upon his return, he started coming off the bench for the first time in his vexed career. A report from Shams Charania and Sam Amick last week said that “coaching staff and players have been concerned about his availability and level of play, with some questioning his passion for the game,” which, no shit. As a Simmons apologist, I found myself returning to his high school highlight reel, a testament to two dark facts: Not only has he failed to develop a discrete basketball skill since then, he had also lost his zest for attacking the rim, which is the only thing that keeps him on the floor in an NBA game.

Signs of life appeared last last Thursday against the Blazers. Simmons came off the bench for 15 points (making all six of his field goals), 13 rebounds, and seven assists in 32 minutes. It looked, if not like the Ben Simmons of old, then like a respectable cog for the Nets’ shooting-rich offense. Simmons doesn’t move the way he used to and opponents don’t even feign guarding him outside the paint anymore. The job description has changed. Whether the root issue is physical or psychological, he’s in no state to attack a prepared half-court defense the way he did as a Sixer. Rehabilitating him as a useable player must involve using him as a big-bodied screener, dribble-handoff guy, and dunker-spot lurker. For the first time as a Net, he convincingly fit his new role, and locked up Damian Lillard on the other end. Once the Blazers resorted to hacking him in crunch time, he made 3-of-4 free throws. (He’s still 53 percent from the stripe on the season, with as dire a shooting form as can be found in professional basketball, and I hope he gets over himself and shoots righty soon.) “I’m getting there,” said Simmons after the game, and at this point, even the slimmest declaration of confidence is a revelation.

On Sunday, Simmons was reinserted in the starting lineup to face a Grizzlies squad sans Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, and Jaren Jackson, Jr. That opportunity wasn’t wasted. He hit 11 of 13 shots, including some nimble finishes at the rim, though he’s still a ways off from dunking with his bygone ferocity. If he has a singular gift as a player, it’s drawing on his speed and strength to conjure up semi-transition looks where they shouldn’t exist. Whether he took those drives straight to the chest of Steven Adams—an encouraging sign that he’s growing comfortable with contact—or flung the ball around to shooters, the results were excellent. The trade to acquire Simmons was of course driven more by sour desperation than by specific tactical need, but here, finally, was a blueprint for how the Aussie might actually help them. He had 20 points through three quarters. By the end of the game he was feeling himself enough to attempt a tricky cut-dribble in transition, and while the ball sort of bonked him in the chest, it still found its way neatly into the shooting pocket of Yuta Watanabe, who sunk one of his four threes of the night. After letting Memphis hang around for far too long, the Nets put the game away in the final frame.

A win over a depleted Grizzlies squad in November won’t convince anyone that the 8-9 Nets’ woes are behind them. Simmons as point-center forever poses a roster construction puzzle: For all his talents guarding the 1 through 4, any big with a semblance of a post game can squish him at will. Brooklyn doesn’t have a rim protector who shoots capably enough to share the floor with Simmons, and if they have any ambitions for the postseason, they’ll probably need to acquire one somehow. In the meantime, they’ll have to help Ben refine his limited but potent toolkit, and hope that he wakes up one day remembering that is among the fastest 6-foot-10 people to ever live. The Nets visit Philly on Tuesday. At least the guy’s feeling good enough to tell jokes.