Kristian Winfield: Like fine wine, Ben Simmons will get better with time

NEW YORK — When Ben Simmons is pushing the ball in transition, one of three things can happen.

One: Simmons gets downhill and finishes at the rim, either with a dunk, a floater or a running hook shot.

Two: Simmons accelerates, forcing the defense to contract around the rim, before he beams a pass to a corner shooter.

Or three: Simmons either rockets a one-handed bounce pass or a two-handed lob over the defense to a streaking teammate for an easy fast-break finish.

And then, he’s getting back on defense to guard the opposing team’s best player.

After four preseason games, including a finale where Simmons somehow fouled out in 13 minutes, the Nets have seen glimpses of what this thing can look like.

Simmons is a taller and more athletic version of Rajon Rondo, the point guard who tied the Boston Celtics’ Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen together during their 2008 NBA title run.

Simmons is a more athletic version of Draymond Green, the Swiss army knife who continues to tie together a loaded Golden State Warriors team featuring Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and the third Splash Brother, Jordan Poole.

In truth, Simmons’ unique blend of size and playmaking invokes the legendary Magic Johnson, who tied together the Showtime Lakers of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and Byron Scott.

While Simmons’ former head coach seemed unsure whether or not the 76ers could win a championship with him at point guard, the Nets have no such uncertainties.

In fact, this is exactly what general manager Sean Marks, head coach Steve Nash and co-stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving envisioned when the Nets pulled the trigger on the blockbuster James Harden trade at the deadline last season. The Nets needed a table-setter, and Simmons, whose first instinct has always been to make a play for his teammates, fit the bill to a tee.

Those visions, however, were all hypotheticals — “if” Simmons could push past his mental health issues; “if” Simmons could push through his back ailments; “if” Simmons didn’t crumble under the pressure of returning to the basketball court after being disgraced by the public following his Game 7 blunder in the second round of 2021 NBA Playoffs.

It’s no longer an if. It’s not even a “when.” The Ben Simmons era in Brooklyn is now.

Simmons ties the pieces together; he is the glue the Nets have been seeking. And after 470 days watching from the sidelines, he will make his official regular-season debut for the Nets against the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday.

And he’ll make his impact, more than likely, without taking a single jump shot.

“I don’t need him to shoot. I’m not going to ask him to shoot,” Nash said. “Ben is an incredible playmaker, he plays point guard, he’s incredible in transition, he’s a good screener, he’s playing out of the half roll and attacking the rim. Those are the things we need from him”


Simmons, by all accounts, is a wine connoisseur.

This past March, he partnered with Australian wine brand Penfolds to launch their California Collection. He listed two wine items — a $50 decanter and a $70 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon — in a story titled “What Ben Simmons Can’t Live Without.” He even had a glass of wine during his sitdown interview with JJ Redick on his “The Old Man and The Three” podcast.

Good wine, famously, tastes better with time.

Simmons is a lot like good wine. He has to be. It’s been longer than an entire calendar year since he last played a game that mattered.

At the top of last season, he cited mental health issues as the reason for holding out of 76ers training camp with an outstanding trade request. When he arrived in Brooklyn at the Feb. 10 trade deadline, a herniated disk in his lower back ultimately required surgery, preventing him from making his debut.

Of course there was going to be rust when he took the court this preseason. The last time Simmons stepped onto an NBA court, the Giants announced Eli Manning’s No. 10 would be retired, and George Floyd statues continued to be unveiled across the country for Juneteenth.

As expected, Simmons looked like a shell of himself in his first two preseason games.

At times he was indecisive. He didn’t look to score, let alone shoot, instead deferring to his teammates. In the second preseason game against Miami, he declined — twice in one possession — to take advantage of a mismatch against the 10-inch-shorter Kyle Lowry.

His star teammates, however, were never worried. They know wine all too well. They know it can be bitter before it gets sweet — or as Nash has repeatedly said, it’ll be ugly before it gets pretty.

“Just getting more reps,” Durant said. “I think he’s building his confidence. He knows that we all trust him, but just getting the reps under his belt, you know? There’s nothing like playing an NBA game.

“I think he’s just finding his rhythm again. He hasn’t played in a long time and to throw you back up in there with the game going fast — you can play pickup all you want but once you put someone in the game all that stuff goes out the window.”

Simmons only took three shots that night against the Heat. He admitted three wasn’t nearly enough and that he needed to strike the right balance of looking to score himself versus getting his teammates involved. But again, the best wines need to age before reaching their peak.

“It’s been a year,” Simmons said. “I’m coming back. Give me some time.”

The next game, he scored three times on five attempts. And in the finale, when he fouled out, he had attempted three shots in 13 minutes.


The Nets have famously installed a new offensive scheme. It was Brooklyn’s worst-kept secret — not that they needed to keep it under wraps anyway — that the isolation-heavy offense that crippled them last season was heading out the window.

It was never sustainable, leaning on Durant and Irving’s individual greatness, because as great of scorers as they are, iso-ball becomes predictable.

Swing, swing, KD. Swing, swing, Kyrie.

But on the opening tip-off of the preseason opener, Nic Claxton won the jump ball, Irving recovered it, then immediately dumped the ball off to Simmons, who advanced up the floor and initiated the offense.

Like fine wine, Simmons got better with time.

Five assists in the opener. Four assists and six turnovers against the Heat. Ten assists to just two turnovers against the Milwaukee Bucks. And an unintended rest day due to some overzealous officiating in Friday’s preseason finale against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“It was fun messing up because I know how good we can be,” Simmons said. “And seeing different looks and opportunities there and working with Kevin and Kai and Joe [Harris], seeing where they want the ball and how things are going to work in the flow. The only way you are going to learn is by making mistakes. So, I had a few out there tonight. I can go and watch film and say I know what I did wrong and how to fix that. It’s all a learning process for me, so it’s good.”

Even in those limited minutes, Simmons made an impact. The Nets outscored the Timberwolves by 15 points in his 13 minutes on the floor. They did so despite him only making one field goal — a field goal that flipped the game on top of its head.

First, it was a running hook shot. Next, a halfcourt alley-oop to a streaking Claxton. Finally, a drive-and-kick to Markieff Morris for a wide-open corner 3.

This is the Ben Simmons experience, and in Brooklyn, it’s only getting started. He’s what Rondo was to the Celtics; what Draymond means to the Warriors. And if the Nets are going to make a deep playoff run, it’s because Simmons has been everything they expected — and then some.

“Ben will be fine. He’ll improve, he’s gonna get better every night, and he’s gonna be an engine for us and a big part of what we do,” Nash said. “So I’m not really worried about him.”