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How Ben Simmons is handling pressure of long-awaited Nets debut

After a 486-day wait, Ben Simmons will finally get back to doing what he loves.

He’ll finally take the court in an NBA game, making his Nets debut in Wednesday night’s season opener.

“Now we’re here,” Simmons said after morning shootaround at HSS Training Center.

When he suits up at Barclays Center against New Orleans, it’ll be his first time playing a game that counts since June 20, 2021.

“I take every day, day-by-day. For me I’m looking forward to playing this game,” Simmons said. “I can’t wait to be out there.”

Simmons has been out for 16 months, since his 76ers’ second-round playoff exit two seasons ago. His relationship with Philadelphia fractured in the wake of his struggles in that series against Atlanta – following a perceived lack of support he got from Doc Rivers and Joel Embiid – and he requested a trade that offseason.

Ben Simmons plays against the 76ers in a preseason game on Oct. 3, 2022.
Ben Simmons plays against the 76ers in a preseason game on Oct. 3, 2022.

Citing mental health concerns, Simmons sat out the start of last season. And after arriving in Brooklyn – at the cost of former MVP James Harden – he suffered from a herniated disc that eventually required surgery in May.

Now he finally gets to make his long-delayed Nets debut alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to form a new Big 3. And both stars – as well as Steve Nash – have reassured him that any nerves after such a long layoff are to be expected.

“Yeah, (Durant) was just telling me you’re supposed to feel that, you know? If you weren’t feeling it there’d be something wrong,” Simmons said. “But I feel excited. I’m ready to go. I can’t wait to get out there. This what I do. So, I love to do it. And I can’t imagine doing anything else. So I’m excited.”

The retooled Pelicans will be a challenging first test for Brooklyn, especially with Zion Williamson back. Like Simmons, the burly New Orleans star missed all of last season, and will provide a tough matchup for the former.

But handling those tough matchups is a task Simmons relishes, and one of the biggest reasons the Nets surrendered a future Hall of Famer like Harden to get him.

The Defensive Player of the Year runner-up in his last healthy campaign, Simmons helped hold two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to 6-for-21 shooting in the Nets’ preseason win at Milwaukee then started against Karl-Anthony Towns in the victory at Minnesota. Next up is Williamson.

“Yeah there’s not many guys in the league who can do that, so I take that opportunity when it comes to guard the best players in the world,” Simmons said. “So it’s a pretty good job.”

Unlike Philadelphia, where fans berated Simmons for not shooting – trying to fit a square peg in an undersized round hole – the Nets have not only Durant and Irving, but eventually will get 3-point deadeyes Joe Harris and Seth Curry back as well.

Simmons’ task will be to slow opposing stars on one end, and aggressively push the ball and create clean looks for shooters on the other end. In his four healthy seasons he assisted the second-most 3-pointers in the league. It’ll be the key to unlocking their offense, and a responsibility he embraces.

Ben Simmons at Nets practice.
Ben Simmons at Nets practice.
NBAE via Getty Images

“If I’m not aggressive, this team’s not going,” Simmons said. “If I’m not pushing the ball, if I’m not finding my guys if I’m not getting to the rim than those easy shots that we get now are not going to happen. So I’ve got to be the motor.”

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