NEW YORK -- Ben Simmons took part in his second media day as a member of the Brooklyn Nets on Monday. This time, neither he nor any of his teammates fielded questions about rescinded trade requests, their coach's job security or championship expectations. Now that the only superteam in town is the New York Liberty, there isn't much noise around the Nets.
"I think that it's a fresh start for everybody," Simmons said. "Last season, we had a lot of different things going on."
Simmons sounded similarly positive this time last year, but back then he was coming off back surgery. Now, after "taking the summer to focus on my body and get it to a place where I felt that strength come back and let that area heel," he said that it feels "amazing" to be healthy enough to perform the way he wants to.
"I get to do my job," Simmons said. "That's a blessing. Every day, I don't take it for granted. I just come in here and do my job to the best of my ability and I'm grateful to be back on the court playing and doing what I love."
In 2022-23, Simmons only appeared in 42 games, all before the All-Star break, and the three-time All-Star averaged 6.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists in 26.3 minutes. More worryingly, he averaged 2.5 free throw attempts per 100 possessions, which is one-third of what he averaged at his peak with the Philadelphia 76ers. Coach Jacque Vaughn repeatedly urged him to play with more force, but has since said that Simmons couldn't physically do so. There were times when he could "barely jump," Simmons told ESPN's Marc Spears in August.
The 2023-24 version of Simmons will be different, according to Simmons. He sees himself as Brooklyn's point guard, a leader and "somebody that can facilitate, get to the rim, get to the line," he said at the podium. Separately, in an interview with YES Network, Simmons said that he's "able to take hits and get to the line and do Ben Simmons-type things."
In 5-on-5 scrimmages leading up to training camp, Simmons has been "looking a lot better," Nets big man Nic Claxton said. "He's feeling a lot better, a lot more confident in himself. I know he's ready to get out there. He has a lot of people to prove wrong. He wants to get back to his old self."
Brooklyn guard Cam Thomas said that Simmons "looks more explosive" in the open court: "That's the main thing I've seen different from him. When he's in transition, he goes."
Ideally, this season will see the return of the old Simmons. But he'll be in a new context. He has played a total of 21 minutes next to Mikal Bridges, 22 next to Cam Johnson and 28 next to Spencer Dinwiddie. This will be Vaughn's first training camp as head coach, and the front office turned over almost the entire bench in the offseason. The plan is to get stops, get rebounds -- a major weakness last season -- and find easy points in transition, with Simmons pushing the pace at every opportunity.
"I think this team goes as far as Ben and Mikal take it," Dinwiddie said. "We know who Ben can be when he's healthy and right and in a good space, and that's what we hope for, obviously, 'cause, to be the best possible team we can be, we need that."
Bridges said that he and Simmons have been on opposing teams during scrimmages, and he's happy to see the 27-year-old "having fun." Bridges added that Simmons' competitiveness has stood out during these sessions: "You can tell when you're lining up against somebody and they're trying to beat your ass."
If Simmons returns to form and his body holds up, then the Nets could be one of the league's best defensive teams. He and Bridges finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting in 2021 and 2022, respectively, and Claxton was in the running for most of last season. ("KD and Kyrie, when they left, it's like my name just fell off the map in a sense," Claxton said. "It makes my blood boil.") Dorian Finney-Smith can guard up or down, too, and free-agent addition Dennis Smith Jr. is a menace at the point of attack.
"I can't wait," Simmons said. "I think it's kind of scary when you have multiple guys on the floor that can guard 1 through 5. And that's just gonna lead to pace in transition. So it's exciting to have guys on the floor that are very very talented in that area."
For the Nets to reach their potential on that end, though, they'll need Simmons and Claxton to be a viable tandem offensively. This is challenging because it is 2023 and neither of them is a floor spacer.
When they're on the court together, the Nets need to "get out and play fast, shoot a lot of 3s," Claxton said. "And then as far as the halfcourt offense, we'll have to work through that. We'll put everybody in position. That's not my job. [It's on] the coaches to figure that out."
Ever the optimist, Simmons dismissed concerns about the fit. "It's talk," he said. "I don't know. We gotta play together, you know?" He added that he'll be able to answer questions about it in time.
"Give us probably 30, 40 games," Simmons said.