Brooklyn Nets’ Ben Simmons ‘locked in’ for comeback from injury
Three-time NBA All-Star opens up about years with the Philadelphia 76ers, his health, playing for Australia and more
MIAMI BEACH – While seeing will be believing for a long-skeptical NBA community, Brooklyn Nets forward Ben Simmons appears to have his All-Star swagger back mentally and believes his battered body will be rejuvenated for a comeback chapter next season now that he feels the best he has in two years.
“I’m excited because I know I can do it,” Simmons told ESPN Andscape on Aug. 25. “So, that’s the exciting part for me. [Last Thursday] night, I’m like, ‘Yo, let’s get back in the gym.’ I’m excited. I get to do something I love to do at a high level. Regardless of what people say, I’m a three-time All-Star, All-NBA player, [All-] Defensive Team. I’ve done things. I’m not somebody that hasn’t done anything.
“But at the end of the day, that’s what you want to do. You want to go out and compete against the best in the world and be one of the best.”
Simmons’ NBA résumé includes being the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft, the 2018 Rookie of the Year award, three All-Star selections, a 2020 All-NBA selection and two All-Defensive Team picks. That was then for the 27-year-old whose career has been riddled with injury, ridicule and mental challenges since struggling in a career-changing 2021 NBA playoff series followed by a trade request from the Philadelphia 76ers to Brooklyn. The Melbourne, Australia, native has also been criticized for not playing for his national team for years. Simmons missed the 2021-22 season due to a back injury and last season was limited to 42 games due to a nerve issue in his back.
After moving from his offseason home in Los Angeles to Miami Beach, Simmons has been working out five days a week for at least five hours per day to get his body ready for the 2023-24 NBA season. He told Andscape that he not only plans to be ready for the start of next season for the Nets but has a goal of returning to “dominate people” and returning to his All-Star form after so much chaos in recent years.
“For me to come back and dominate people will be great,” Simmons said. “I don’t intend to come back the same player I was last [season], because that’s not even close to where I am. I get excited because I’m like, ‘Damn, I would [expletive] on the player I was last year.’ But I know where I was at last year, so it’s easy to say that. But it’s just fun to go and do the thing that you love when you’re out there. That’s really it for me. I don’t really ask for too much.
“Sometimes I think about [my recent struggles]. I’m like, ‘Damn, that’s a lot.’ Sometimes I sit down and break it down. ‘That was exhausting that I was having to deal with all that.’ But I feel like there are different situations you can handle, and this is a good test for me. How much worse can it get?”
In the following Q&A with Andscape, Simmons talked in-depth about his Nets comeback expectations, the good and bad of his days with the Sixers, dealing with adversity and skeptics, dreams of playing for Australia in the 2024 Olympics, the craziness of last season in Brooklyn, his relationship with coach Jacque Vaughn, his deep love of fishing and much more.
Since moving to Miami in May, you work out Monday through Friday religiously and take weekends off. Take me through a typical weekday in detail from start to finish as to what you do.
So, I wake up, I’ll get ready. I’ll get on the [training] table with my trainer Scott. Eat breakfast, get on the table, get treatment done for about like an hour, 45 minutes. Depending on what day, I’ll do Pilates first. I’ll do some knee loading and then I’ll either hop on the bike [Peloton] or go straight to facility. And then head to the gym, but depending on what stage we were at with the rehab. At the start, I got in the OTG [Off the Grid Fitness], so the treadmill with the air, so it’s taking your body weight off. Once we got that, we were more onto the court, then we usually hit a lift right after. Then depending on what is next, we usually go back and shoot, depending on if it’s a long session or a short session.
It’s five, six hours daily. And then the more I can progress, the more I’m allowed to do, the better I’m feeling. So, recently, I’ve been enjoying it a lot more because I’ve been allowed to do a lot more, which has been exciting.
How would you say your health is, at this point? How is your back?
I don’t think people realize how bad it was in terms of physically how I was feeling and what I was able to do on the floor. Being able to sit down now and not have to lean or slouch one way, it’s kind of crazy for me. But I feel I’m at 100% now. Right now, I’m just building back to where I’m playing. I haven’t played in a while. Just taking hits and getting my body used to that.
When was it at its most painful on and off the court last season?
Off the court, just daily things. Waking up, standing up. Getting out of bed, that was a struggle because I was in pain usually. Sitting down for too long, I would get tightness. I would tighten up and then be stiff and I had that nerve damage going down my leg, so I’d feel it in my leg. Just normal things that you wouldn’t think would be a problem would kind of be irritating, and that just kept building, and building, and building. Now it’s completely different, and that was adding to that stress of everything else going on, not being able to perform or play knowing you have some things going on, which was really frustrating.
When did the back issues begin?
I’d say in Philadelphia. So, Philadelphia, originally it was the [Milwaukee] Bucks game [on Feb. 22, 2020]. I went up, twisted and I think that’s when I really irritated it right before ‘The Bubble’ when they stopped playing, they canceled the games. So, I got lucky in that situation because they stopped playing and I was able to rehab. And I got it to a great place. And then I had an incident, or an episode, right before I got traded [to Brooklyn on Sept. 21, 2022]. I went up the stairs, my back just kind of gave out, and that was when it really got a lot worse. And then I tried to rehab. Now I’m about to get ready to play in Game 4 with the Nets in Boston [on April 25, 2022], and we were playing 5-on-5, and I told them I want to play one more 5-on-5 to see how I felt. I was playing, pushed it a little bit too hard. The next day, I woke up on the floor. I couldn’t even move. I had to make that call and say I can’t go. People don’t know that, but that was just a part of it.
And then from there, I decided to have surgery. Rehab was a little different because it wasn’t with people that I’ve been with before, so it kind of felt a little bit new. It was just one of those things where they didn’t really know my body, so they didn’t know what I really needed at the time. Tried to come play that next season, wasn’t able to do it. Regardless of people telling me to push myself, physically I wasn’t able to do it. I could barely jump. I’m over here air balling hook shots because I can’t even land on my left knee anymore, because that was taking the pressure. So, I had a huge knee. It was a lot of things going on.
Throughout the season, I was trying to manage and just be able to get out there and play, and then it got too much. During last season, [my brother] Liam told me I could barely get up and down. I’m over here running around, setting picks and just giving handoffs because that’s really what I could do. And then we had to make some bigger decisions because I just wanted to get this situation in the right place for me, because it was just kind of unfair. I felt like I was putting myself in a worse position. I’m hearing all these things like, ‘He doesn’t want to play.’ All these different things. And it got to a point where I’m like, I need to take this seriously. We need to figure out actually what’s going on.
I’m now with [agent] Bernie [Lee], so I feel like that played a big part. Him just being very involved with what was going on and figuring it out. We had a few tests done. I had herniated left and right side of my back, which was why I wasn’t able to put muscle onto my right leg or do anything like that and play the way I usually know how to play. And then took this summer to really just focus on that, get the right people around me, surround myself with people that were just going to help me get to the right place. This is the best I’ve felt in like two years.
I could barely sleep in [private] cars [rides]. Couldn’t really drive to games. It was every day, little things. And that was also the frustrating part about it knowing the outside world doesn’t know. My teammates, maybe they might think a certain way, but they also saw me out there moving, so I don’t know.
I know who I am. I’m not where I need to be. I know that’s where I need to get, to get to an All-Star level, All-NBA. I know what it takes, which is the fun of it. I don’t want anything easy.
Looking back, do you think maybe you should’ve talked publicly about your latest injury instead of letting NBA followers and media speculate?
People are always going to speculate and say what they want. Because regardless of what you tell them, you can show them something and they’ll still say something else. At the end of the day, it was more so just having the right people around me and just building a great team around me, and allowing myself to build and get to where I know I should be at, and not really listening to everybody else. Because I tried what people wanted me to try, in terms of rehab, whatever it was in that situation, and it didn’t work. And I know my body. I know if I’m able to compete or not.
I’m going to compete every time I get out on the floor, but at the level I needed to, I just could not do it. So, that was the frustrating part about that. But now, I feel like I have the right people around me, I’ve been focused and locked in.
Were you playing when you probably shouldn’t have been playing last season?
Yeah, definitely. I was definitely on the floor when I shouldn’t have been on the floor at the start of the season. But I also don’t think I was in a place not to play. That played into it too, but at the end of the day, my body is my career, so I do need it to be healthy. So, I made decisions based on just trying to please the people. I don’t think that was right, personally, for me. But I’m a competitor and I do want to compete.
But when you’re out there not making layups and your body is failing you …
The crazy part is, I’m going into a game knowing I’m not able, my body’s not allowing me to do certain things. So, it’s so frustrating, because you’ll get in simple situations where you’re just fumbling, or you can’t hit the rim on a hook shot, or whatever it is. Just simple things. And that really kind of takes you out your game in terms of your mental, what can you do to contribute to the team. I remember my brother came to watch me work out one day, and he was just like, ‘You’re not OK, are you?’ I was looking at him, I was like, ‘Obviously not. This is not how I should be moving.’ But I’m happy I’m in this place now. I’m grateful I didn’t do anything to have another surgery.
Where are you at the point in your progression in terms of, can you play 1-on-1, 2-on-2, et cetera?
I’ve been doing 2-on-2 for two weeks. We started from 1-on-1, minimal contact to start, and now it’s building up. I’m taking hits. I’m doing more movement. There’s some things I do on the court where I’ll do it, see how it feels, and then it’s like a process. Your brain’s relearning certain movements and things like that. But I’ve been feeling great and progressing well.
So, we’re at 2-on-2 and we’re introducing more bodies on the floor. But I’m in a great place in terms of playing.
Are you hopeful to be ready for the start of the season?
Definitely. Yeah. The version I’m at now, if I was playing against myself from last season, I would kill him. That’s how I feel.
After everything you’ve gone through, where is your love for the game now?
It’s just fun to get out there and work, and also see the progress. From Day 1 [of my rehabilitation], I was under the rim, just touch shots. Getting my touch back. I wasn’t allowed to do anything else. So just seeing the progress each session, developing this much has been so much fun for me.
So, you’re basically retraining your body to get back to who you were, right?
Yeah, definitely. It’s not easy. I think you got to be really disciplined, but I feel like this is the most working and the most disciplined I’ve been out of every summer I’ve had.
Is your body different, in terms of strength?
Way stronger. The strongest I’ve been physically, in terms of like moving weight. This is the strongest my core has ever been. So, these days, I can’t not do core. Core has got to be a part of my everyday life. Knee loading is another thing I do strengthening my legs. And then it helps with my back, too. Training my back and there’s just different exercises. Just like every night Pilates. Every day, doing a lot of core exercises just to keep that all going.
That’s the biggest thing, being in tune with my body. Everything feels easier. When I was younger, I was in tune. It was just programmed. You do things naturally. You don’t think about it twice … Now, doing these little things every day, my body is in tune the right way to use everything. So, it’s exciting.
Do you go on YouTube and look at that three-time NBA All-Star? Do you go look at the guy that made All-NBA, All-Defensive player, do you go back and watch that guy?
Definitely there are times I do. I get sent clips from certain people. It’s just funny, because myself, I know how I feel, so people will try to do it as a little motivation. But I know who I am. I’m not where I need to be. I know that’s where I need to get, to get to an All-Star level, All-NBA. I know what it takes, which is the fun of it. I don’t want anything easy. That’s why you like fishing. It’s fun to chase, or you want bigger fish, or whatever it is. You got to learn what it takes to get there.
Your body is not in condition to play in the World Cup right now. Are you thinking 2024 Olympics in Paris at all for Australia?
Yeah, for sure. Olympics? Yeah, 100%. And that’s what I want to do next year.
Have you told Australian basketball officials of these hopes?
I’ll let you break the news. I want to play. That’s the other thing. I get messages from Australian people like, ‘Yo, you should be playing right now. [Houston Rockets center] Jock Landale is playing right now.’ To me, I’m going to play when I’m ready. There hasn’t really been a time where I’ve been prepared and ready physically. But next year, my goal is to be on the Olympic team.
You are an avid fisherman who has fished on the shore regularly by your home in Miami and in the deep sea on weekends this offseason. Has there been any lessons that you’ve learned that you can apply to next season?
I plan on doing some lobstering. When I was reeling in that 90-pound amberjack, my core was on fire. So, that’s a good core workout. But what can I take back? It’s patience, probably. Fishing, if you don’t tie the knot right? You want the highest percent chance to catch the fish or land the fish. If you don’t do the hook right, you lose the fish. Just the details…
The bottom of the ocean is so beautiful because you get to see everything. You appreciate different things and just take it for what it is. It’s not fun if you just can get it [easy].
When did you become fascinated with fishing?
Since I was a kid. How old was I? 8? Yeah, 8 years old. Going down to Newcastle and getting down to the beach and fishing off the rocks. I just became intrigued with catching fish in different ways. You got to outsmart the fish. I was learning knots and just different things and methods to fish. That is the exciting thing for me. All the gear that comes with it, different type of fish. You never know what you’re going to catch either …
It’s definitely relaxing. But I feel like every time I do fish, my mind just goes somewhere else completely different. I don’t even want to focus on anything, and deal with the real world, which is nice. It’s like a peaceful thing that I get to do. Regardless of if I’m catching fish or not, that rhythm of, whether you’re using a lure or just waiting on that bite. As a fisherman, there’s nothing better than getting a bite.
How far have you gone out fishing in the Atlantic Ocean outside of Miami?
I’ve taken a trip to the Florida Keys. We went to Bimini recently. That was fun. That was an experience. We didn’t have the best weather, so we were kind of hungry on the boat until we caught some mackerel. That was fun. Just to be able to get out there and experience a different place to fish. That’s cool too. So, I definitely would get back and go to some reefs. I’m on YouTube often, so I get to see different experiences of fishing, which is cool. I want to get a boat. That’s my next thing.
You have spent your offseasons as an NBA player in Los Angeles until this year when you moved to Miami this past May. Why Miami?
I wanted a change. And actually, I always wanted to come down here and live when I wasn’t playing to spend my summers down here. I didn’t have the opportunity early just because a lot of my business and things like that were set up in L.A. So, I eventually got a house in L.A., but now I think I want to move down here to Miami. Spending four months down here has made me kind of realize just believe it feels homier than L.A. does, for me, and I enjoy just getting out and fishing. Be able to get in the water, the weather. So, I love the culture.
This is the most positive I’ve been, and the best place I’ve been in the last two years, which is exciting.
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving asked out of Brooklyn. Why didn’t you ask out?
Out of Brooklyn? I love Brooklyn. I don’t have an issue with Brooklyn. For me, I want to get healthy. The only thing I could do was get healthy. I couldn’t complain about anything. I’m in a great city, a great organization, great owners, great coach, great GM [general manager]. It’s all good people around, and they want to win and do it the right way. Also, I don’t have specific teams I want to go to. This is a job. I’m not going to ask to be put somewhere specific, I just want to play. I got to be healthy to do this so, at the end of the day, I just got to get back right and get on the court.
What do you love about Brooklyn?
Just the culture. I got my grandparents out there in the Bronx. Dad is from there. It’s just something about the city. Just the energy that New York comes with is just different. You’re able to move around. Everything is kind of close by. They say the driving is bad. I don’t think it is. I like driving in New York. Just the energy. The people outside going on their walks. When you step outside, you got to be doing something. So, that’s what I love. It’s like the opposite of Miami, but I get a kick out of both.
What was the toughest days of your NBA career?
I don’t think it was days. I think more like times. The time when I got traded when I was hurt. The time I couldn’t play when I got the epidural shot in my back, so I missed that part. Then I had the rehab part and I’m thinking I’m going to be right for next season. Now I’m on the court not feeling great. Probably that time between then. It just didn’t feel right. I never felt great with myself. So, I think there’s just periods. And this is the most positive I’ve been, and the best place I’ve been in the last two years, which is exciting.
If you could go back, anything you’d change?
I don’t know because it might affect the future now. I don’t think I would change anything. It’s easy to say that you would change things. But at the same time, that’s the only way you’re going to learn, or get new places. You got to go through it. That’s the beautiful thing about where I’ve been. I feel like I’ve been the lowest point where it just sucks. You’re like, ‘It ain’t no way it gets worse than this.’ But, you get through it, you push and you keep going …
I was miserable. The back thing was no joke. It affected everything I did. Driving a car, sitting down, trying to move. Just everything I was doing. I didn’t realize how much it affected me. It was like two different people.
I hear swagger, I hear confidence in you that I haven’t heard in a while. Am I wrong in that?
I put so much work in, and I know where I’m at. Give me another month until training camp. I’m blessed to have that time. I feel I’m going to have less time, but I’m using each day as an opportunity to get better. There’s no other option. People ask me. There’s no other option. I have to kill. That’s all I can do.
Do you have any sense of what position the Nets will play you next season after playing center?
Point guard. That’s who I am. As much as people say, ‘Fix this, fix that.’ No, I’m a point guard. When I was playing at that [high] level, nobody was really saying anything to me.
So, coach Vaughn has communicated that to you?
Yeah. We’ve spoken about that. I think he’s come down enough to where he knows, ‘OK, he’s going to be ready.’
Why are you best at the point guard position?
Because I facilitate the ball well. I make the right decisions most of the time. I’m confident with it. I’m going to make the right decision when I get the ball. Make the right passes. I’m able to dictate the game really well. That’s without needing to jump superhigh or be superstrong. Regardless, I’m able to see the game well.
If you’re healthy, the team’s healthy, how good can you guys be?
About to find out. About to find out. That’s really it. Every year, that question asked probably a lot, too. But we just never know. Nobody would’ve guessed Miami was going to be in the [2023 NBA] Finals, so I think when everything goes right injurywise and you have everything, a good rhythm together, you can do anything.”
Obviously, people are obsessed with you from a shooting standpoint. What part of your game are you working on?
Touch shooting, pull-ups, spot [-up] 3’s. Just everything. When I’m allowed to be who I am and move how I need to move, I will be in a good place. The sky is the limit. Just building my confidence each day. The only way I’m going to get my confidence is just reps, reps, reps, reps, and getting shots up. So, I’m excited.
How would you say you reflect back on your Philadelphia days?
I had a lot of fun there. It was time for me to go. When I did leave, it was good timing. Obviously, the injury and everything that was going on didn’t help. But I think it gave me a chance to really appreciate it. I’ll always have love for Philly. People always ask me like, ‘If you were to get traded again where you want it to be?’ I always say, ‘Just Philly. Philly is a second home to me.’ And in time, you learn and grow as people. I don’t really have anything bad to say about Philly. It was a crazy situation at the end, but it is what it is.
How do you look back at that Game 7 loss of the 2022 Eastern Conference semifinals to the Atlanta Hawks? Your last game in a Sixers uniform is often brought up. Do you even reflect on that? (Note: The 6-foot-11 Simmons is remembered for passing while under the basket to a teammate who was fouled with the Hawks up 88-86 with 3:30 remaining instead of dunking. He averaged 9.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 8.6 assists per game and missed 30 of 45 free throws in that series. After the season-ending loss, then-Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said “I don’t know that question or the answer to that right now,” when asked if Simmons could be the point guard on the championship team they wanted to become.)
I don’t even remember that game anymore. To me, I made a play. I gave it to somebody who’s probably going to shoot better from the free throw at that moment of the game. It didn’t work, but I made a play. People make hundreds of plays throughout the year. They’re not always going to be the right play at the right time, but it was a play.
But that wasn’t the factor of the game. You can go back and look at different things within the game where it could’ve been better. For me, shooting the free throws was one of them, but it didn’t happen. So, that’s just something you just keep working [on].
Is it better for you to forget and move on from that?
No, not forget, because it’s a part of the journey. This would be no fun, what I’m doing now, if it was just all easy. This is a part of the journey for me. We’re in Brooklyn now. I have a chance to come back and turn people’s heads, or people take back what they said before. And that’s what sports is. That’s the beautiful thing about sports. You could play one great game and everyone loves you, then you play one bad game and people hate you. The last memory people have is what they’re going to say. So, for me, I just want to go back and prove people wrong and come out a different player.
Vaughn has come down to Miami three times this offseason and has attended your workouts. Can you talk about your time with him when he’s down here and what that means for you?
It’s good. I feel like our relationship, to start, was terrible. There was just so many different factors going into the team. We had [former Nets head coach] Steve [Nash] and then [Vaughn] became the head coach. Kev [Kevin Durant], Ky [Kyrie Irving] leave. I’m not playing. I don’t really have a relationship with [Vaughn] like that because he wasn’t the head coach, because there’s a little distance, or a little gap between assistants and injured players sometimes. And I got mad at him because there was no communication. There’s none of that. So, [I’m] kind of a little frustrated with Coach. I know Coach is frustrated with me.
One day, people are telling him [I’m] good, and next, it’s not. From the start, I wasn’t good. So, it was a tough situation for him and myself. But now having the right plan and team around me, now he’s seen, ‘OK, he is dedicated. He wants to work. He wants to win, and he’s willing to do what he needs to do to be on the court.’ So now, we’re in a great place. I speak to him every other day. And I’m excited because I think Coach is great. Great as a person, great coach. That’s the main thing, just being a good human. He can relate to a lot of players, he’s played the game. So, it’s good.
How do you reflect on last season for the Nets and the craziness of it? Irving was suspended eight games for linking to an antisemitic film on his social media accounts and for initially refusing to disavow the film’s content, and then was granted a trade request to the Dallas Mavericks. Durant was granted a trade request to the Phoenix Suns. Meanwhile, you missed most of the season to injury.
I laugh because I got friends who don’t live in this world and they’ll talk about it. And I’ll just laugh because it’s just so crazy. The NBA, you just never know what’s going to happen. There’s so many different things that went on last year that you just wouldn’t expect, which sucks, because you want to go out and just play and compete. And that is the nice thing about being in Brooklyn right now … We got great guys on the team, and guys that just want to hoop. I don’t want drama either.
I’m one of the only people that doesn’t really tweet or say anything on social media. And yet, I don’t know what it is. People have a fascination with me. At the time, it was a good clickbait thing. But I also think that comes with it. So, for me, I just focus on what I can. I work my a– off and hoop.
Why do you think people are fascinated with you? Are you fueled by hate?
I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It’s just something that just comes with it. There’s been plenty of No. 1 picks. I don’t think that’s it. Maybe it’s because I’m Australian. Nah, but I don’t know. I like it. It comes with it …
I’m not fueled by the hate. I don’t even call it hate, because hate is like, that’s deep. I don’t really hate anybody.
Do you even read what people say on social media, on television or in stories about you?
For me, the worst part about it was, when you’re not able to do something and people keep talking on it, and it’s not because you’re not capable, it’s just because you’re injured. I had people tell me, ‘You need to get to the rim and dunk.’ I’m like, ‘Yo, I can’t even jump off of my knee [last season]. What are you talking about?’ Things like that frustrate you when you can’t shut somebody up. So now, I have the opportunity to bust my a– all summer and come out a different player. That’s all I can do.
I’m not going to get on a microphone to talk to these people. I wouldn’t sit with most of these people at a dinner table. So, I can’t really get mad at people. It’s just a part of it.
In terms of mental health, where are you with that? Is there anybody you’re still talking to, or what are you comfortable sharing on that?
Everybody just got to work on themselves. That’s just life. Everyone goes through different things. I think I’ve done a good job on doing that and just doing what I love. Basketball. And getting back to that.