Simply 17 video games into the season, the Brooklyn Nets have generated sufficient grotesque 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. Underneath the fold lurked some lower-grade dysfunction: the skin-crawlingly dangerous early season play of Ben Simmons. Nobody anticipated a lot from him. All expectations across the 26-year-old, who hadn’t performed an actual recreation since his notorious no-dunk in Sport 7 of the 2021 Sixers-Hawks Japanese Convention Semifinals, have since been razed. However he appeared chippy in preseason appearances. He’d had time to get better from his Might surgical procedure on a herniated disc in his decrease again. He nonetheless managed to slide nicely 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. By means of his first six video games of the season, he had 24 fouls and 37 factors. Even by his typical scoring-averse requirements, the basketball hoop appeared to him an eldritch horror—flip your again to it, flee it if you happen to can, don’t even think about 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 mentioned that “teaching employees 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 high school highlight reel, a testomony to 2 darkish info: 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 recreation.
Indicators of life appeared final final Thursday in opposition to the Blazers. Simmons got here off the bench for 15 factors (making all six of his area objectives), 13 rebounds, and 7 assists in 32 minutes. It appeared, if not just like the Ben Simmons of previous, then like a decent cog for the Nets’ shooting-rich offense. Simmons doesn’t transfer the best way he used to and opponents don’t even feign guarding him exterior the paint anymore. The job description has modified. Whether or not the foundation concern is bodily or psychological, he’s in no state to assault a ready half-court protection the best way he did as a Sixer. Rehabilitating him as a useable participant should contain utilizing him as a big-bodied screener, dribble-handoff man, and dunker-spot lurker. For the primary time as a Web, he convincingly match his new position, and locked up Damian Lillard on the opposite finish. As soon as the Blazers resorted to hacking him in crunch time, he made three of 4 free throws. (He’s nonetheless 53 % from the stripe on the season, with as dire a taking pictures type as might be present in skilled basketball, and I hope he will get over himself and shoots righty quickly.) “I’m getting there,” mentioned Simmons after the sport, and at this level, even the slimmest declaration of confidence is a revelation.
On Sunday, Simmons was reinserted within the beginning lineup to face a Grizzlies squad sans Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, and Jaren Jackson, Jr. That chance wasn’t wasted. He hit 11 of 13 photographs, together with some nimble finishes on the rim, although he’s nonetheless a methods off from dunking along with his bygone ferocity. If he has a singular present as a participant, it’s drawing on his pace and energy to conjure up semi-transition appears the place they shouldn’t exist. Whether or not he took these drives straight to the chest of Steven Adams—an encouraging signal that he’s rising snug with contact—or flung the ball round to shooters, the outcomes have been glorious. The trade to accumulate Simmons was after all pushed extra by bitter desperation than by particular tactical want, however right here, lastly, was a blueprint for the way the Aussie would possibly truly assist them. He had 20 factors via three quarters. By the top of the sport he was feeling himself sufficient to aim a tough 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 one among his 4 threes of the night time. After letting Memphis dangle round for much too lengthy, the Nets put the sport away within the remaining body.
A win over a depleted Grizzlies squad in November gained’t persuade anybody that the 8-9 Nets’ woes are behind them. Simmons as point-center eternally poses a roster building puzzle: For all his abilities guarding the 1 via 4, any huge with a semblance of a submit recreation can squish him at will. Brooklyn doesn’t have a rim protector who shoots capably sufficient to share the ground with Simmons, and if they’ve any ambitions for the postseason, they’ll in all probability want to accumulate one one way or the other. Within the meantime, they’ll have to assist Ben refine his restricted however potent toolkit, and hope that he wakes up someday remembering that’s among the many quickest 6-foot-10 folks to ever reside. The Nets go to Philly on Tuesday. A minimum of the man’s feeling adequate to inform jokes.