Ben Simmons is determined to put his absentee NBA season behind him, and controversial teammate Kyrie Irving has backed the Australian star to do just that.
After a 2022 season marred by a messy demand for a trade away from the Philadelphia 76ers and back problems once he was traded to the Brooklyn Nets, the eyes of the NBA world will be firmly fixed on Simmons when he finally makes his debut for the team.
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Simmons' last NBA outing was the 76ers' demoralising game seven loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the 2021 playoffs, in which the first signs of the crumbling relationship between player and team became apparent.
After being directly criticised by both star teammate Joel Embiid and head coach Doc Rivers for his reluctance to shoot the ball, Simmons revealed the saga had seriously dented his confidence, leading to him sitting out the entire season.
Irving though, has confidence that Simmons has the mental fortitude to put the whole saga behind him, telling reporters the 26-year-old's 'resolve and resiliency' made him stand out.
It's high praise from the controversial Irving, who was barred from playing for the majority of last season due to his refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Irving said he hoped to become a leader and mentor for Simmons as the Nets look to bounce back from a bruising first round sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics in last season's playoffs.
“It’s not too often that you get a chance to see a 6ft 10” guy do the things he does,” Irving said.
“We can talk about the intangibles, we can talk about all the strengths, but what I’ve been able to observe from afar as a competitor for the past few years but now as a teammate, is his resolve and his resiliency.
“He wants it, whatever greatness looks like to him, he wants it. When you’re around other great people and you’re in a great environment where you can be supported when you’re going through your ups and downs, I think that can help ease the journey.
“That’s ultimately what I would like to play within this position and this role on our team, is being a level of guidance for him and being able to protect him when needed but knowing he’s a big boy, he can handle it.
“He doesn’t shy away from the moment and I like that.”
Ben Simmons determined to make an impact for Brooklyn Nets
The Nets have endured a somewhat tumultuous off-season, with former MVP Kevin Durant at one point demanding either a trade or the removal of head coach Steve Nash and general manager Sean Marks.
Durant ultimately stayed with the Nets after it became clear a suitable trade would not be found, but Simmons is confident it won't affect the team's chances.
“Obviously someone asked for a trade … different things were going on,” Simmons said.
“I don’t worry about that stuff because I can’t control it. Obviously it’s a blessing to be able to play with a lot of talented players but I just focus on what I can contribute to this team and that moment it’s getting healthy.”
Irving's name was also frequently associated with trade rumours, but the Nets' ultimately managed to retain their two star players, who have the potential to form a formidable partnership with Simmons thanks to his defensive versatility.
Simmons will benefit from having the friendly face of fellow Aussie Patty Mills on the team, who returned to the Nets after signing a one-year deal for last season.
Mills told reporters he had asked Simmons if he was ready to play one-on-one, to which Simmons replied, "I'm ready to play one-on-five".
"Rome was never built in a day ... the ability for us to create this bond between us with the adversity that comes hopefully can tie us stronger together," Mills said of the franchise's dramatic last 12 months.
He said Simmons had learnt from "the good, bad and ugly" of his career.
"I've supported him from afar for a long time now," he said.
"To step on the hardwood with him, I'm really looking forward to it."
Simmons insists he's mentally prepared to return to the NBA.
"Everyone has dark days; when you're able to address it and work towards a place you need to be, that's where I am," he said.
"I don't care about narrative, or people saying certain things.
"I'm going to go out there play, I'll let everyone else talk ... expectations, that's for you guys (in the media)."
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