‘It’s a fresh start for everybody:’ Ben Simmons optimistic he can return to All-Star form

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NEW YORK — There was no tension in the air. No David Letterman appearance. No looming questions in need of pressing answers during media day at HSS Training Center. The Nets are so far from the back pages of tabloids and headlines of aggregation accounts, it’s somewhat unbelievable these black-and-white jerseys are the very threads once worn by James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. The only hint of Brooklyn’s bygone era of superstardom came just aside the dais’ billowing table cloth, where training camp invite Harry Giles, a former first-round pick out of Duke, sported a pair of his fellow Blue Devil’s old Nike sneakers with Irving’s logo printed noticeably on the tongue.

“There’s not a whole bunch of stuff going on now,” Nic Claxton said Monday.

Brooklyn’s starting center did recognize the downsides of an NBA team lacking in theater. Without that pressure cooker, without all the eyeballs blinking in the direction of All-Stars, Claxton felt his candidacy for last season’s Defensive Player of the Year award slink into nothingness. Once Irving was traded to Dallas and Durant dealt to Phoenix, Claxton’s name didn’t even appear on an All-Defensive team. “When KD and Kyrie, when they left, it’s like my name just … fell off the map,” Claxton said. He clenched his fists as he spoke, revealing his third-place finish among voting for centers “makes my blood boil.”

Make no mistake, this is still a competitive bunch with expectations of winning games in a loaded Eastern Conference. And there is one former All-Star remaining in Brooklyn. One who once galloped down basketball courts and specialized in elevating his teammates with freewheeling passes. He’s the 6-foot-10 former Rookie of the Year who joined this franchise at the 2022 NBA trade deadline, when Harden first fled the ship that was sinking at Barclays Center.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 02: Ben Simmons #10 of the Brooklyn Nets speaks during Brooklyn Nets Media Day at HSS Training Center on October 02, 2023 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

For all the promise Mikal Bridges has presented that could very well result in his first All-Star nod come February, Ben Simmons’ return to form was repeatedly credited by Nets players as a driving force of Brooklyn’s quest to compete for a bona fide playoff position this spring — and stay the hell away from any funny business in this league’s annual play-in tournament.

“That’s just a big factor for us, in what we want to be and what we’re trying to get to,” Bridges said. “Part of it is him.”

“I think this team goes as far as Ben and Mikal take it,” said Spencer Dinwiddie.

“He has a lot of people to prove wrong,” added Claxton. “He wants to get back to his old self.”

Simmons stomped strongly up the stairs and took his seat before assembled reporters and cameras. With a pair of earrings sparkling from each lobe, he flashed a bright smile and showed all the happiness and ease that teammates and coaches have been reporting about Simmons this summer, having fully recovered from an ailing back injury that sidelined the No. 1 pick of the 2016 NBA Draft for all of 2021-22 and limited Simmons to just 42 games last winter.

“It’s a fresh start for everybody,” Simmons said. “Last season we had a lot of different things going on. I think just for everybody to have, like, a subtle start, we can build a real identity.”

He said he was grateful and blessed for his body being restored. He credited “a lot” of meditation and consistency of routine and habits for aiding his physical progress. He spoke for just over seven minutes, the shortest stint of any session at the Nets’ podium, typically brief with his words but visibly comfortable in his skin.

Simmons has months of workouts in Miami Beach to fuel all this confidence. The beginning of last season, he wasn’t healing. He was simply doing what he needed to play. Simmons looked stiff and rigid masquerading as a switchable forward alongside Durant and Irving’s playmaking. He was in and out of head coach Jacque Vaughn’s lineup, finding a role as inconsistent as his own contributions.

“Our relationship was a little up and down from the start,” Simmons said of Vaughn, who took the reins from Steve Nash seven games into the 2022-23 campaign. “It’s hard for a coach to really trust and believe in you when he’s not seeing it, right? And I’m not able to physically do it, and he can’t see it, as a coach I would do the same thing. I’m not gonna play you if you’re not gonna compete in the things I know you can do.”

Vaughn has since made multiple trips to Miami to observe Simmons’ offseason regimen. The 27-year-old, who prepares to start at point guard for Brooklyn in his seventh professional season, believes he’s proven to Vaughn and other Nets staffers who visited his workouts that he’s primed for that position.

“Show him that I want to play at this level and be the point guard and do these things,” Simmons said. After all, there were plenty of league executives who doubted whether the LSU product still desired to be among the game’s greatest. “So I think that comes with, we speak about it, is grace,” Simmons said. “When you put that work in, you really get grace from the surrounding people. Your teammates, your coaches and staff.”

He will, of course, have to prove it. Vaughn told reporters as much last week: “You’re going to be judged by your performance and that’s going to garner the minutes.” Simmons himself said to give him and Claxton’s defensive pairing 30-40 games to rebut any naysayers. But everything here is now laced with optimism as opposed to the impending dread of a displeased All-Star demanding a trade.

The Nets somehow survived those anvils, as the other half of the Simmons-for-Harden blockbuster remains more than muddied. Two years after Simmons himself was absent from media day at the Sixers’ Camden, New Jersey, practice facility, Harden pulled the same maneuver for Philadelphia’s proceedings on Monday. He did not join the team’s flight to Denver for training camp at Colorado Springs, steadfast in his hope to be traded to the Clippers, as steadfast as the Sixers have been in seeking greater draft capital than Los Angeles has been willing to forfeit, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Harden remains in Houston, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. Two years ago, he was still with Brooklyn, fielding questions about a three-year, $161 million extension with the Nets he ultimately declined. Simmons was asked to recall how he spent that late September day in 2021, instead of fulfilling his obligation to meet with the media. But this is a new day, his squabbles with the Sixers considered nothing but a smudge on the rearview mirror.

“Next question,” Simmons said.

For him, the antics are over and he’s back playing the game he loves.

“That’s the biggest thing. Out there, he doesn’t care if he messes up, misses, you know? Just out there having fun and trying to win,” Bridges said. “He hasn’t been on my team [in pick-up], and you can tell when you line up against somebody and they’re trying to beat your ass.”

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