Reporters were greeted to the sight of Ben Simmons whipping chest passes to Cam Johnson as they trickled into the Nets’ practice gym on Monday morning in Brooklyn. Johnson was calibrating his 3-pointer in preparation for the team’s matchup against the Utah Jazz at Barclays Center. And for the first time since Nov. 6, the man who was spraying the ball to him will be suiting up as well.
“Just game-type reps,” Johnson said. “One thing you know about him is he’s looking to create for others, so it’s all about getting into windows and making yourself available.”
Today is the day. The Nets upgraded Simmons from probable to available at approximately 11:30 am on Monday. The three-time All-Star had missed 38 consecutive games because of a pinched nerve in his lower back but has officially been cleared to return to the court — and Brooklyn desperately needs his services.
“I mean he definitely helps, it’s good to see him back with the group,” Nic Claxton said. “Of course, he brings this extremely high basketball IQ, being able to defend multiple positions on the defensive side of the ball, rebounding, so we’re definitely happy to have him back.”
Speaking to reporters ahead of Saturday’s 106-104 win over the Houston Rockets at home, Simmons said he is looking forward to getting back on the floor and using his size and versatility to make an immediate impact for a Nets team that has gone 3-9 in the month of January, falling to 11th place in the Eastern Conference standings. While Jacque Vaughn’s team is just a half game back of Play-In positioning entering Monday, they would not be included in the tournament if the season ended today.
Simmons averaged 6.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 6.7 assists in his first six appearances this season while shooting 52.8% from the field. Brooklyn went 3-3 in those games and has gone 15-24 since.
Simmons’ return gives the Nets much-needed boosts in terms of shot creation, which should help take some pressure off of Mikal Bridges, Cam Thomas and others who have been forced to carry the scoring load for the Nets this season. He is also a switchable big man capable of guarding all five positions on the court, which should further fortify a Brooklyn defense that has been a Top 5 group at that end of the court in January.
“[He] just adds more versatility to the group in general,” Claxton said. “So having another guy who’s used to switching, somebody that I’m used to playing with and we did some good things on the defensive side of the ball last year, so just being able to continue to add to that.”
But it is important for fans to temper their expectations over Simmons’ first handful of games. The 6-foot-10 guard literally has not played in months. He was just scrimmaging with G Leaguers on Saturday on Long Island. He will not start on Monday night, in all likelihood, and will undoubtedly be on some sort of minutes restriction in the early going. It will obviously take him some time to ramp up and return to form, whatever that looks like. But a healthy Simmons means the Nets are one step closer to being whole. And the team should showcase a better product at both ends of the court because of it.
“Having his energy, fresh legs out there,” Claxton said. “We’re pretty desperate right now. We need wins. We don’t have time to kind of be on cruise control right now. We’ve been taking a lot of losses. So we need Ben to come out locked in.”
The visiting Jazz are a perfect example of how quickly things can turn around for the Nets. After a 4-11 start to the year, they have won 11 of their last 15 games entering Monday, now sitting in 10th place in the Western Conference standings ahead of the Rockets and Golden State Warriors.
Johnson believes Brooklyn still has enough time left in the season to make a run at the postseason. Simmons’ presence gives it a better chance to do so.
“Plenty of room,” Johnson said. “Plenty of room and you have to give [Utah] credit for being able to do that. Saying it is one thing. Doing it is a whole different thing… We have a chance to do the same right now. And that’s what I’m saying. that’s what we need to take advantage of.”