Brooklyn Nets guard Ben Simmons, coach Jacque Vaughn reestablishing their relationship
Nets coach made it a priority this offseason to connect with the three-time All-Star in Miami
Brooklyn Nets point guard Ben Simmons got his game, mental strength and swagger back inside the privacy of a gymnasium at the University of Miami this past offseason. The presence of Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn also played a key role in advancing Simmons’ long-awaited return to relevancy, too.
“I had something to prove,” Simmons told Andscape recently. “So, whoever comes down, whoever doesn’t, I know who’s there for me. And he was down there. He came to check on me, which I really appreciate and that gave me more confidence. It was good to have him down there.”
Simmons initially lived up to the hype after being selected No. 1 in the 2016 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers. The former Louisiana State University star was a three-time NBA All-Star, led the league in steals during the 2019-20 season and twice made the NBA’s All-Defensive team. There appeared to be the makings of a potential Hall of Fame career.
But after that elite start, Simmons was burdened with injury, media criticism and mental challenges after struggling in a career-changing 2021 playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks. Afterward, he asked for a trade request from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Nets. The Australian also missed the 2021-22 season due to a back injury. He was limited to 42 games last season due to a nerve issue in his back that he now wishes he had allowed more time to heal.
“You could see how he was moving last season. That wasn’t him. That was depressing for him. He was like, ‘I want to contribute but I can’t,’ ” Nets general manager Sean Marks told Andscape. “The thing for us was to be supportive of him and not be too quick to judge when he was sitting there. I don’t know what he was going through. The last year in Philly was tough. The injuries were tough.”
“I thought it was important for me to reestablish our relationship from the way it was introduced. It was during a pretty tumultuous season with expectation, trauma and chaos, and we both were involved in it. And for me to hopefully let him know that [there were] no hard feelings my way.” – Jacque Vaughn
The Nets fired coach Steve Nash following a 2-5 start during the 2022-23 NBA season with a team that included Simmons, forward Kevin Durant and guard Kyrie Irving. Vaughn was named interim head coach and it was expected that Ime Udoka was going to be hired. But after a 2-2 start, Vaughn was given the job full time.
Simmons told Andscape in August that initially his relationship with Vaughn was “terrible,” as he was frustrated with the lack of familiarity and communication. Simmons believed that Vaughn was frustrated by his injury situation as well.
“It was tough. I was also injured, so I was also dealing with my own stuff and he was in a position where it’s a lot of pressure to come in and be the head coach,” Simmons said. “You still got expectations to help his team win. So, then there was just a lot of uncertainty.”
After years of going to Los Angeles, the Nets wanted Simmons to spend most of this past offseason rehabilitating in Brooklyn, New York, at the team facility. Simmons, however, preferred to go to Miami instead where he could work out five to six hours a day and spend his off time fishing, being on a boat in the Atlantic Ocean and enjoying Miami culture, which reminds him of his beloved Australia. After Vaughn convinced the Nets’ brass to allow Simmons to go where he was most comfortable, Simmons went to Miami.
After last season, Vaughn made it a priority to connect with Simmons. Vaughn and Simmons were able to naturally bond over the course of the offseason. Vaughn came to Miami three times to watch Simmons work out.
“I thought it was important for me to reestablish our relationship from the way it was introduced,” Vaughn said. “It was during a pretty tumultuous season with expectation, trauma and chaos, and we both were involved in it. And for me to hopefully let him know that [there were] no hard feelings my way. I was trying to set a standard for the program and that’s my responsibility as a coach and to let him know what my expectations were for him going forward and that I am pulling for him at the same time.”
It was during those visits that they strengthened their communication. They also began communicating regularly via text and phone calls. Before training camp, Simmons told Andscape that Vaughn was a great coach and human being who could relate to players as a former NBA player himself.
“It’s important for me not to invite him to my house or say, ‘let’s meet on my turf,’ ” Vaughn said. “I went down to where he was spending time and where was home for him that offseason. And so, I hope he took that as a sign of me really checking on him.”
“Once he saw me in Miami and where I was able to get back to, he was happy. That’s where our relationship started to grow. He had trust in me. He came down saw the work,” Simmons said.
It was during those trips to Miami that Simmons also convinced Vaughn during his workouts that he was much improved mentally and physically and ready to become a major contributor. Vaughn eventually told Simmons he would make him the starting point guard for the Nets entering the season. On opening night, Simmons had 10 rebounds, 9 assists and 4 points in 23 minutes during a 114-113 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Oct. 25.
When asked why he was confident in Simmons, Vaughn said: “I saw him doing the work, and so when you see an individual actually do the work in the offseason when no one else is watching, those things mean something to me.”
So far, Simmons ranks in the top 15 in the NBA in rebounds (10.8) and assists (6.7). While he is only attempting six shots per game, his field goal percentage is 56%. Simmons missed Wednesday’s game with a hip injury, and will also be out Friday night against the Boston Celtics on ESPN (7:30 p.m. ET).
While rejuvenating his NBA career under Vaughn, Simmons hopes he can give the Nets the spark they have been waiting for this season.
“We’re all kind of in a similar situation. We all want to succeed and win. We’d love it to be right now, but some things take time. So, we got to stick together and keep going. Being able transparent about everything, I think that is good for us,” Simmons said.
“If Ben can be Ben, [there is] no telling how far we can go. He’s definitely the engine that drives us,” Marks said.