Ben Simmons still sees himself as a playmaker, both literally and figuratively. That means playing lead guard, and being a leader on the Nets.
Brooklyn coach Jacque Vaughn envisions Simmons the same way…if he earns it. And he’s expressed as much, first to Simmons and then to the press.
Vaughn and Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks made multiple visits down to South Florida to see Simmons during his rehab from back woes.
Despite his size and (when healthy) athleticism having seen him deployed in myriad roles, Simmons has always considered himself a point guard. And after he and general manager Sean Marks made multiple visits to South Florida over the summer to see Simmons during his rehab from back woes, Vaughn came away from those meet-ups with a similar vision, agreeing to play the 27-year-old there — as long as his play warrants it.
“I’d use the word ‘agreement’ more so than ‘commitment,'” Vaughn said. “The agreement is if he’s playing at a consistent and high level then I think our pictures look exactly the same. You can kind of put it in that category.”
The Nets have almost never seen Simmons play that way. For them, he’s consistently been injured or absent.
“A far more athletic Draymond Green”
At his peak, Simmons was a three-time All-Star for Philadelphia, a Defensive Player of the Year runner-up in 2021, his last healthy season. But he missed all of 2021-22 due to mental health woes and a bad back. He had microdiscectomy surgery for a herniated L-4 disk on May 5, 2022, with multiple experts telling The Post it could take 18 months for him to fully recover.
The Nets may never get peak Simmons. But if they can just get a healthy one, it could be the difference between an arduous rebuild and a faster-than-expected retooling.
After averaging 15.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.7 assists in four healthy seasons with the 76ers, the version of Simmons that the Nets got — at the cost of former MVP James Harden, no less — was an inferior one. Limited to just 42 mostly-ineffective appearances last season, he averaged 6.9 points, 6.3 boards and 6.1 assists.
A prime Simmons sparked premature visions of a young Giannis Antetokounmpo. Even Spencer Dinwiddie — the man he’ll compete with for the Nets’ starting point guard spot — likened him to Golden State’s defensive anchor Draymond Green.
“You’ve got to remember, Ben at his best form is a far more athletic Draymond Green with less 3-point shooting,” Dinwiddie said on the Pat Bev podcast that dropped Wednesday. “When you talk about the defensive IQ, reading passing lanes, quarterbacking a defense, able to guard one-through-five, he’s one of the only people in the league who can do that.
“And then, obviously, he’s getting out on that break. He’s never been fortunate enough to play with Steph [Curry] and Klay [Thompson] obviously; so if he was in that type of environment you’d see those same kind of triple-doubles, accolades, things like that…and he was getting them without that.”
Can he get them again?
Simmons was clearly compromised physically last season, and unable to play at an appropriate level. Vaughn was critical at points, and the relationship between Simmons and the Nets was taxed at times.
Eventually, Simmons hired Bernie Lee to represent him, and the agent did what he does best: Smooth out a tricky situation. He set about getting Simmons on the same page with the Nets, and Vaughn and Marks’ repeated trips down to visit Miami helped repair what had been a frayed relationship.
“Ben’s and my relationship is in such a good place right now because we’ve been able to talk through that moment of our lives where I expected him to do things that I’ve come to understand that physically he wasn’t able to do,” Vaughn said.
“I think at that time, you kept hearing me talk about force … and how I wanted him to play. And so now, a revelation where I’ve seen the work he’s put in, where he was at, some of those things have been revealed to me. I think that’s why our relationship is at a really good place right now.”
What Vaughn expects Simmons to do is play with force and athleticism. He expects him to push the ball and create looks for others.
For now, it sounds like Simmons will have the ball in his hands with Dinwiddie playing largely off the ball and newcomer Dennis Smith Jr. backing them up. It’s something Vaughn is convinced can work, despite Dinwiddie having mixed results from behind the 3-point arc.
The Nets had better hope he’s right.
“You’re going to see a little bit of everything”
Dinwiddie shot .404 from deep for Dallas in 2021-22 and .405 last season before being traded to Brooklyn. Once he no longer enjoyed the luxury of playing alongside All-Star Luka Doncic, however, he hit just .289 for the reconfigured Nets.
“You’re going to see a little bit of everything,” Vaughn said. “Spencer, when he was playing with Luka, he did a lot of catch-and-shoot. … And historically, Spencer is a better catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter than he is off the bounce, so that 28 percent a lot of times you saw with us ended up being switch, iso, off the bounce. That’s a shot that you would want him to take; he’s going to get better at making that shot, but also we’re going to put him in a position where he’s taking more catch-and-shoots.
“That’d put him on the court with Ben at times. At [other] times, he’ll be the only point guard on the floor also, because he’s shown that he can play point guard and manage a team and lead a team, so there will be opportunities.
“And for Dennis as well. Dennis’ ability to play with a group and lead a group himself … is why I’m looking forward to camp to see how it all works its way out. But those three are going to be essential to how we play with pace, how we get to the rim, how we get paint attacks, and how we create 3s for each other.”
Dinwiddie estimated he only averaged about 13 minutes running the Mavericks attack while Doncic sat, but 23-25 minutes playing shooting guard alongside the star.
But once he came to Brooklyn, he saw his opportunities for easier catch-and-shoot looks fall off a cliff, down from a 22.5 percent share of his total attempts in Dallas to just 13.5 percent with the Nets. He was forced into taking tougher looks off the bounce.
Dinwiddie shot just .335 on pull-up 3-point attempts last season — .371 in Dallas and .270 in Brooklyn. But when afforded catch-and-shoot looks, those numbers jumped to .442 and .333, respectively. He’d been at .423 the season before for the Mavs.
In short, while Dinwiddie has largely been a lead guard, he’s also shown at least some ability to thrive as an off-guard as well. As a complete non-shooter, Simmons almost has to be on the ball, and excel at creating open looks for this offense to work — especially with another non-shooter, Nic Claxton, at center.
“First of all, I think what the biggest thing is, if Ben is able to play consistently at a certain way, there’s no doubt then, that he should have the basketball in his hands,” Vaughn said. “You have to guard him with the basketball in his hands.
“And so now we have to incorporate how we’re going to have Nic Claxton on the floor with him at the same time. … I talked about turning defense to offense, so they both can provide some defensive leverage that we just didn’t have in the past.”
Along with defending, it’s what Simmons has done best. He created 996 3-pointers from 2017-18 through 2020-21, second-best in the league to only Russell Westbrook’s 1,057, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“Spencer at one time played with the basketball and without the basketball. The years he averaged 20 and 18 a game in this league, he shot 6.5 3s a game. So do we want him shooting more 3s? Yes,” Vaughn said. “Ben’s ability to play with pace and get us early opportunities, that now reveals itself. Then we’ll see how this team grows together.”
Want to catch a game? The Nets schedule with links to buy tickets can be found here.
“When he’s at his best … he’s being a monster in a transition”
Simmons’ 6-foot-10 frame and 7-foot wingspan give him the ability to not only switch one-through-five in the Nets’ defensive scheme, but help a poor rebounding team actually protect the glass and ignite much-needed transition.
“If you look at Ben, when he’s at his best, he’s getting [it] off the rim. He’s being a monster in a transition, right? And then he makes plays for others,” Dinwiddie said on Patrick Beverley’s podcast.
“So, we hope that there’s enough shooting out there with Mikal [Bridges]. Cam Johnson obviously is elite; he’s always shooting 45 [percent] from 3. Catch-and-shoot-wise, I’ve been a good 3-point shooter in my career. So we hope to space the floor for [Simmons]. He gets out in transition, makes plays.”
Added Johnson, who appeared on J.J Redick’s Old Man and the Three podcast: “Obviously, Ben allows teams to … especially guys like me and Mikal, he opens up the game, completely, for us.”
Training camp doesn’t start until Tuesday, and preseason the week after that against the Lakers. But read the tea leaves and it’s easy to see what Brooklyn’s plan is. It’s much harder to see if it’ll work.