Nineteen minutes, 6 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds in a preseason game.
You could say that it’s nothing special. But you could also say that it’s one of the most important stat lines in the N.B.A. in recent years.
Ben Simmons is back.
After injury, mental health issues and disputes with management kept him off the court for more than 450 days, Simmons suited up for the Nets on Monday night in a preseason game against his former team, the Philadelphia 76ers, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
“I thought I was going to be nervous, but I wasn’t nervous; I was excited,” Simmons said after the game. “The only way you learn is making mistakes. I had a few out there tonight.”
With the caveat that it was a preseason game, when defense can be lax and the pace a little slower, Simmons looked fairly comfortable and fluid on both ends of the floor, notably making some nice passes.
And he showed off his unusual skill set. As Coach Steve Nash put it after the game, the 6-foot-11 Simmons plays center on defense and point guard on offense.
An Australian, Simmons was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft in 2016 after his freshman year at L.S.U. After missing a full season with a foot injury, he debuted for the 76ers in 2017 and had four effective seasons with the team, averaging 15 to 17 points a game and 7 to 8 assists and playing first-rate defense. He won the Rookie of the Year Award and made three All-Star teams in four seasons.
But the 2020-21 season ended in disappointment, when Simmons passed up a seemingly easy dunk opportunity late in a decisive playoff loss in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Both the 76ers’ star, Joel Embiid, and their coach, Doc Rivers, expressed frustration with Simmons over the incident.
The play also seemed emblematic of Simmons’s progress. Always excellent on defense, he never seemed to develop a great shot. In a game in which 3-pointers have become increasingly crucial, he has taken just 34 in his career, making only five.
Over that summer, Simmons demanded a trade. When he returned to the 76ers in October he was kicked out of practice after refusing to participate in drills. He did not return to the court for the team that season, saying his absence was due to mental health reasons.
In February, the 76ers finally traded him to the Nets in a deal that included James Harden going the other way. Soon after, though, he was diagnosed with back problems and while there was hope he could return for the playoffs, he did not.
Now Simmons is finally back on the court and is being counted on to be a key contributor for the Nets, who were swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round last season.
“Ben’s playing in a totally different unit than he’s played with in the past, different style, so it’s a big departure for him,” Nash said. “These guys haven’t played together, so we’ve got to go through this. It’s going to be ugly as times, but I thought as the half wore on we started to see glimpses of the potential.”