For the first time since his unceremonious departure from the Philadelphia 76ers, Ben Simmons has opened up about the mental 'demons' that eventually took a hold on the Australian star.
Fierce criticism directed at Simmons in the wake of a poor performance in game 7 of the 2021 Eastern Conference semi-finals against Atlanta ultimately proved to be the tipping point for the 2016 No.1 pick.
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While Simmons had always been highly rated for his passing and defence, his inability to shoot from outside or hit free throws consistently was a frequent knock on his as the 76ers surged back from the doldrums into NBA contention.
Simmons' shortcomings were offset in part by the improvement of star teammate Joel Embiid, but the mounting criticism of the Australian star eventually took its toll.
Discussing his exit from Philadelphia for the first time with former 76ers teammate JJ Redick on his podcast The Old Man and the Three, Simmons said the reaction to a now infamous play where he passed up what looked to be an open dunk to teammate Matisse Thybulle who missed a crucial layup had 'killed him'.
The spotlight had been on Simmons throughout that series as he struggled badly from the free throw line, with many speculating that the pressure of shooting big shots from the stripe was getting to him.
“For that moment, bro, it happened and I was just like, ‘OK, f***, now we got to go make another play.’ That’s how I’m thinking and I didn’t realise how everyone is posting like it’s that big?” Simmons said.
“When I look at it now, I’m like, ‘I should’ve just f***ing punched that s***'.
“But it didn’t happen, and I was OK with that, I can live with that, I can live with everyone’s trying to kill me over one play.
"It’s as if everyone wants to watch film with me. Like, the whole arena. I can dissect everything if you guys want, but that’s not realistic.”
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Simmons was directly criticised both by Embiid and 76ers coach Doc Rivers in the aftermath of the game 7 loss, kicking off the messy trade saga that eventually saw Simmons traded to the Brooklyn Nets for former MVP James Harden.
Rivers said he 'didn't know' if Simmons had the potential to be a championship calibre player in his post-game press conference, while Embiid directly referenced Simmons' pass to Thybulle in the minutes after the loss.
In his conversation with Redick, Simmons said he felt undermined by the comments, and that had seriously impacted his mental health and confidence in his own ability.
“It got to a point where after that series, it’s like from the people you’re supposed to have that support from or that comfort from, I wasn’t getting that either so it was a toll on me,” he said.
“Then mentally, it killed me. I was like, f***, no energy for anything, like I was in a dark place.
“The first thing for me was really identifying that I got to get right. It’s not a physical thing, it’s mentally. I think that first thing of acknowledging it is a huge step for me. I need to address this, I need help in these areas.
"Being able to do that, that was the start of getting to where I’m at now. I’m in a great place and I feel comfortable talking about it now.”
Simmons also said the constant spotlight on his lack of shooting almost immediately after his NBA debut had also added up.
“I didn’t really realise that early on in my career," he said.
“This started building up and I’m like, ‘They’re saying I can’t. Should I not? I’m f***ing confused now’.”
“It did f*** with me a lot. But I kind of found peace in a place where I’m just like f*** it, it’s basketball.”
The worst part, he said, was feeling as though the other things he brings to the table, such as his elite defensive ability, was overlooked because he hadn't become a singularly dominant scorer.
“I think for a while it was just so repetitive," he said.
“You’re hearing it all the time from everybody. You’re like, f***ing hell, get off my case. Like, I do other stuff too. I’m guarding the best players.
"That’s one thing, I don’t think people respect that enough, like what I’m bringing to the court because there’s a lot of s*** I’m bringing to the court.”
Simmons did not play for the Nets after the trade, instead sitting out of the playoffs in order to rehabilitate a back problem.
The 26-year-old said he was expecting to take the court for the Nets on opening night this year, saying he was comfortable with where his mind and body were at.
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