Playing for the first time in 38 games, Brooklyn Nets forward Ben Simmons had an impressive return to the court Monday night against the Utah Jazz, finishing with 10 points, 8 rebounds, 11 assists, a steal and no turnovers in 18 minutes in a 147-114 Nets victory at Barclays Center.
Simmons, who had been out since Nov. 6 with a nerve impingement in his lower back, had an assist to Royce O’Neale on a 3-pointer six seconds after checking into the game midway through the first quarter. He finished plus-27 on the night and provided the Nets with size and pace to help them win for just the fifth time in their past 17 games. It’s the first time Brooklyn has won two games in a row since late December.
“We got the win, so yes,” Simmons said when asked if it was a successful return. “That’s the main objective for me, and that’s really all I care about.”
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft, Simmons hadn’t gone through a full practice with the Nets before his return Monday, though he had been in a couple of practices with Brooklyn’s G League affiliate, the Long Island Nets, in recent days.
Before the game, Nets coach Jacque Vaughn had said Simmons would be coming off the bench and playing in “short” stints, and that’s how this one played out, with Simmons checking in for roughly five minutes in the middle of each quarter.
And Simmons, who had averaged 6.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 6.7 assists for Brooklyn through six games across the opening two weeks of the season before being sidelined with the back issue, looked like the same player he was before the injury.
He was able to push the tempo offensively, getting six assists in the first quarter alone, and also attacked the boards at both ends. And while he remains a complete nonfactor as a potential shooter anywhere outside the immediate vicinity of the basket, he went 5-for-5 from the field on a variety of layups and dunks.
Simmons stood in the tunnel in between his stints on the court, saying afterward he did so in an attempt to stay loose as he’s not used to coming off the bench.
“Just pushing the pace,” Simmons said of his mindset when he was on the court. “I don’t think many teams are ready for a team that’s pushing the ball every single time down the floor. It gets guys cross matched, different matchups that you want for us offensively. And then just reading the defense and seeing what they’re going to give us.”
Overall, it was a very encouraging performance — particularly considering how long Simmons had been sidelined entering Monday’s game. The Nets not only scored 147 points but had 41 assists and shot 21-for-45 from 3-point range
“Extremely impressive,” Vaughn — who, per ESPN Stats & Information research, was the last Net to have at least 11 assists and no turnovers off the bench in a game, doing so in 2004 — said of Simmons’ performance. “Other people played so well tonight because of the impact of Ben Simmons. It’s that simple.
“The looks that we got tonight, the amount of 3s that we got tonight, the fast-break points that we got tonight, the uncontested looks that we got tonight, the pace that we played with … we did it on both ends of the floor. And Ben deserves an extreme amount of credit for the way he played tonight.”
The nerve issue is just the latest in a series of injury issues Simmons has dealt with over the past three years. He missed the 2021-22 season due to a holdout while requesting a trade away from the Philadelphia 76ers and a back issue. He played just 42 games last season before being shut down early with a different nerve issue.
Vaughn declined before Monday’s game to say how long it would take for Simmons to increase his minutes moving forward, saying the goal was just to get through this first game and go from there. But after Monday’s successful return, Simmons said he’s looking forward to an extended run on the court and hopes his back issues are behind him.
“People don’t see the work that goes in behind the scenes,” Simmons said. “So it took a lot of effort and, and patience and time to get back to where I’m at now. Every single day, every morning, every day, I’m working to get back on the floor. That’s not online. You don’t see that. So for me and everyone that has seen that and seen my discipline over the last two months, it’s great to see it pay off.”
While the Nets got Simmons back Monday, they were without starting small forward Dorian Finney-Smith, who will also miss Wednesday’s game against the Phoenix Suns — the first game Kevin Durant will play at Barclays Center since being traded to Phoenix last year.