Is Ben Simmons back?
The Aussie broke out of his early season slump with his best game yet for Brooklyn Nets in their win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday (all times AEDT).
Starting at centre in place of Nic Claxton (personal reasons), Simmons racked up a season-high 22 points to go with eight rebounds and five assists in a game high +19 in 34 minutes.
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It marked the most points Simmons has scored in a regular season game since March 23rd, 2021.
He’s now tied two strong performances together after bouncing back against Portland on Friday with 15 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists while importantly making 3-of-4 free throws down the stretch.
And his recent resurgence is getting pundits in the United States excited.
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“What we get a chance to see was him going downhill. It was huge, he didn’t have to think,” former NBA player Steve Smith said on NBA GameTime.
“What I like about Ben Simmons is he understands how to play and has a great feel for the game.
“But if your confidence is rattled – I don’t care how great you are – I think that’s what happened for him … he just got a chance to play basketball.
“Once he’s playing and he’s in a groove and he doesn’t feel like the spotlight is all on him, then he doesn’t care if he gets fouled and goes to the free throw line or is shooting a jump shot.
“He’s last three or four games he’s looked much better.”
Up until his recent uptick in form, Simmons has looked a shadow of his former self in his return to the court after sitting out all of last season following a trade standoff with the Philadelphia 76ers before getting sidelined with a back injury.
A knee issue has also hampered the 6-foot-10 player this season as well as getting in foul trouble as the Nets stumbled out of the gates, leading to the sacking of Steve Nash.
New Brooklyn coach Jacque Vaughn has since moved Simmons to the bench to play as a backup five, and the team as a whole has turned things around, with six wins from its last games to improve to 8-9 overall.
For Fox Sports US’ Chris Broussard, the former Pick 1 is starting to show signs at both ends of the floor he can get back to his previous best form.
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“Ben Simmons is looking like he can be Philly Ben,” Broussard said on First Things First.
“(Against Portland) he was a great playmaker, pushed the ball in transition and played good defence – he did a really good job on Damian Lillard.
“His problem with the fouls is partially he’s having to foul big guys because they don’t have any girth in Brooklyn.
“He was aggressive … there’s a reason Ben wasn’t playing well. He may have a few ups and downs over the next few weeks.
“But I do think he can get back to being Philadelphia Ben Simmons.”
NBA analyst Skip Bayless meanwhile believes Simmons stepping up to the free throw line late against Portland – an area of his game that has previously let him down – was promising.
“I couldn’t quit watching this game because I couldn’t quit watching Ben Simmons … what was most impressive to me was what he did when they went hack-a-Ben,” Bayless said on Undisputed.
“The four free throws he shot came fairly late in the game, so he’s being played by Jaque Vaughn down the stretch. They all looked pretty good to me and they all looked like he wasn’t afraid of the moment, the way he’s looked before.”
Simmons first gave a glimmer last week against Sacramento, finishing with 11 points five rebounds and three assists off the bench in just 20 minutes, while improving on each performance since.
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The trend is clearly moving in the right direction, however over the season, he’s still averaging career lows across the board (7.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game).
It’s not the production the Nets would’ve hoped for as the centre piece coming back in the trade for James Harden, while Simmons is also Brooklyn’s third highest paid player at $35 million this season.
But if he can keep up his current level play – and earn a permanent promotion back into the starting line-up – it’d go a long way in helping push the Nets to a higher level.
“When they traded James Harden and got Ben Simmons back, the hope was Ben Simmons was going to be the Ben Simmons of old prior to the Atlanta series (against Philadelphia in 2021),” Locked on Nets’ Doug Norrie said.
“The Ben Simmons that was a an All-NBA guy and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
“Frankly, to start the season, we hadn’t seen it … but these last three games have begun to show the version of Simmons they thought they were trading for.
“If you start extrapolating out the rest of the season about what things can turn into for this team, it’s this version of Simmons that has you start to get excited.
“Simmons is the key to all of this. If this is going to be the version of we get now, then the Nets have a ceiling they can go to. There’s another level the Nets can go to, if this is what he’s game is going to be.”
There’s one crucial test ahead for Simmons though – a matchup against the Sixers on Wednesday that’s sure to have some extra feeling in it.
Simmons himself admitted ahead of the Philadelphia showdown ‘I know what’s coming’, having already copped a hostile response from his old fan base when he returned there for the first time after the trade while sidelined for the Nets.
Another strong performance from the Aussie would do wonders for his confidence.
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“They are waiting for this man and they are going to heckle him and spew a level of vitriol unlike anything he has seen in his career,” ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith said on First Take.
“But I will say this, I’m very pleased with what I’ve seen from Ben Simmons the last two games. If Ben Simmons shows up and has a decent game in Philadelphia, I think that’s going to be the real turning point.
“If he gets through that by playing reasonably well, I think he is going to be on a path that’s much better for him.
“KD and Kyrie are going to be ready to help out Ben Simmons, but if Ben Simmons shows up and does his thing, I think that’s going to go a long way with his progress going forward.”
It’ll come against an undermanned Sixers side missing both Harden and Joel Embiid due to injury, with the absence of the latter to make it a much less spicier showdown given his tension with Simmons.
Heck, with Simmons now playing more at centre, he likely would’ve even been matched up on Embiid at times.
Either way, it still looms as a crucial game for the Simmons he undoubtably would’ve been eyeing for some time.
“He’s been back in Philadelphia as a member of the Brooklyn Nets, but he sat on the bench for that game and they were heckling him. It’s going to be a lot different when you’re playing,” ESPN’s Frank Iosola said on the YES Network.
“But I think going in playing the best game he’s played since the playoffs two seasons ago – not only does Ben Simmons go in with a better mental frame of mind – but his game is close to what it was a couple of years ago with Philadelphia.”