INDIANAPOLIS — Ben Simmons is getting healthier. And he’s getting better.
Considering the All-Star hadn’t played since June 2021 — beset by a bad back and nerve damage that pundits accused him of faking — it’s predictable that even after rehab would follow rust. And though Simmons isn’t 100 percent yet going into Friday’s tilt versus the Pacers, the last few games are a tantalizing taste of what he can be when he gets there.
Kyrie Irving pointed to confidence, while coach Jacque Vaughn called it the “body piece.” Unsurprisingly, Markieff Morris was more blunt.
“Healthy. Finally got his legs under him. He was off for two years. Y’all won’t even give him a chance. Y’all want to criticize him after every f–king game,” Morris said. “But the guy didn’t play two years. Obviously, y’all wouldn’t know, because none of y’all played in the NBA. He’s got to get his body right. There’s contact every night. Playing 30-plus minutes, it takes time.”
It’s taken awhile, the road back not just long and winding but physically and mentally troublesome.
The level of vitriol Simmons got in Philadelphia is well-documented, some absurdly misguided. A Sydney Morning Herald story reported that students dropped STEM scholarships because his name was attached.
Shaquille O’Neal called the Aussie sitting out “a punk move.” Charles Barkley claimed he was faking to avoid playing in Philadelphia last season. ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith dubbed him a “disgrace” and “the weakest, most pathetic excuse for a professi onal athlete” in history.
After a herniated L4 disc and nerve damage, Simmons had microdiscectomy in May and constant work since then.
Now that the work is paying off, Simmons isn’t ready to say he was taking receipts but admits he couldn’t help but hear the outside noise.
“Yes and no. Obviously, I see certain things that are said,” Simmons said. “But I know where I’m at, so I’m just pushing myself and trying to get back to where I need to be to try to help the team win.”
Simmons has done more of that lately, as he’s getting back to optimal fitness.
“It’s really the body piece,” Vaughn said.
Through the first 14 games, Simmons missed five, averaging 5.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists without a single double-digit scoring outing. He shot 44.4 percent from the field and was a team-worst minus-4.8 per game.
But even since sitting Nov. 13 to rest his swollen knee against the Lakers, Simmons has been rapidly improving. He’s averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 6.4 assists. He’s shot 78.6 percent, and his aggregate plus-35 leads the team.
“Just playing with a lot more confidence, and that starts on the internal belief,” said Irving, who has known Simmons for years through mutual high school coach Kevin Boyle. “He’s got to believe in himself. … I’m proud of him. I just want him to continue to be consistent in his approach. And you can tell how much fun he’s having out there, especially on the defensive end. It makes a big difference for us.”
Adds Simmons: “Yeah, I feel [the confidence]. I know who I am, I know what I’m capable of. I know what this team needs me to do, so I’m going to keep working and being consistent with my body and on the court.”
After coming into this road trip with just six blocks all season, Simmons has five in the last two games. With six steals in that back-to-back, this is the most mobile he’s felt defensively.
“So far, this is the best I’ve felt. Obviously, this is a back-to-back, too. I think my minutes were supposed to be lower, but I was trying to push myself,” said Simmons, who tried to talk his way back onto the floor late in the first half.
“He was telling me to put him back in the last three minutes of the half. I said hold off, but he said, ‘I feel good,’ ” Vaughn said. “When he’s telling me he feels good, he’s telling himself that he feels good and he wants to play more, which is great.”