Ben Simmons seems to be getting better with every game. After a year spent sidelined with injuries and copping flak from every direction, the 26-year-old is back with a vengeance. As is becoming commonplace amongst modern athletes, the road to recovery isn’t only physical. For Simmons, focusing on his mental health and building up confidence was the key to making a triumphant return.
Rehabbing from a series of major injuries would test any athlete. But Simmons path back to success wasn’t as simple as that. Simmons faced swaths of abuse from basketball fans and analysts alike and as a result his mental health took a turn for the worse. “I got into a really dark place in my life.” Simmons told the Sydney Morning Herald last month. “It was a build-up of everything, all that pressure and multiple things going on with my family.”
Simmons was criticised by pundits and fans across social media in 2021 after a string of disappointing playoff performances for the 76ers. His critics blamed him for the 76ers early exit, which took a heavy toll. “These things just started piling up and piling up and basketball was supposed to be my happy place, where I’m able to be free and express myself and suddenly I wasn’t able to do that.” Simmons’ former coach Doc Rivers even said he didn’t know if Simmons could be the point guard on a championship team. “Your teammates are supposed to have your back. Your coaches are supposed to have your back. And I didn’t have that at all.” Simmons told former 76ers teammate JJ Redick on ‘The Old Man and the Three’ podcast.
Simmons built an impressive resume with the Philadelphia 76ers over the first six years of his professional career. The Rookie of the year, a three-time all-star and two-time all-defensive first teamer, Simmons’ future was bright. But injuries, playoff disappointments and an ugly holdout led to an unceremonious trade to the Brooklyn Nets in the middle of last season. The Nets had expectations of a deep playoff run. But Simmons’ return was continually delayed and their season fell apart.
After facing strong criticism with the 76ers, a fresh start with the Nets was what Simmons needed. But following the Nets sudden elimination from the NBA playoffs in May, Simmons again bared the brunt of criticism online, with his doubters claiming he had let his team down by delaying his return from injury.
Simmons has since turned over a new leaf. He credits his focus on building his mental strength as the key to his return. “The first thing for me was really identifying what I had to get right. It’s not a physical thing, it’s mentally. Being able to do that, that was the start of getting to where I’m at now.” Simmons told the Sydney Morning Herald. He went on to reveal details of his recovery process, “I had isolated myself for a year. I wasn’t on social media. I wanted to have peace and be by myself and reset because I needed it. And I stuck with therapy too because I think everyone should have that outlet,” Simmons said.
Simmons has returned to the court as a different player. “I know how to handle my emotions and what I need to be doing to get on track. If I’m worried or sad or frustrated or angry, I feel like I’m better able to deal with that now,” he said. Despite the challenging journey, Simmons feels like he’s now in a better place to succeed. “It took time, but I’m at peace with who I am and what’s going on around me. I know what my priorities are and what I need to do every day. Besides that, I just want to be me.”
After an extensive rehabilitation period, you could forgive Simmons for not bursting out of the gates upon his return. He missed five of the Nets first 14 games and didn’t manage a double-digit scoring outburst in a single game as the Nets struggled to find their footing. Since then, Simmons has averaged 14.6 points, 6.4 assists and 7 rebounds per game while the Nets have quietly won five of their last seven. Simmons was a pillar of humility when questioned on how his recent slate of performances have helped turn his team around, “I’m just pushing myself and trying to get back to where I need to be to try to help the team win.”
Simmons hasn’t quite reached the level he demonstrated night-in and night-out a few years ago, but his steady improvement gives us a taste of what’s to come. And his play has certainly restored the confidence of his teammates. “I’m proud of him. And you can tell how much fun he’s having out there, especially on the defensive end. It makes a big difference for us,” said Nets teammate Kyrie Irving. Another teammate, Markieff Morris, had a more colourful message to Simmons’ detractors, “He was off for two years. Y’all won’t even give him a chance. Y’all want to criticize him after every fucking game.”
The Nets currently sit at ninth place in the NBA’s Eastern Conference with an even 11-11 record. A large chunk of the Nets playoff hopes rest on Simmons’ shoulders. If he can continue to improve, the Nets could very soon be championship contenders.