NEW YORK – Ben Simmons streaked behind the defense and caught a pass in transition that he dunked. About a minute later, he fired a cross-court pass to a Brooklyn Nets teammate for a 3-pointer.
Those were the types of plays the Philadelphia 76ers had seen many times before.
On Monday, Simmons finally made them for another team.
Simmons played against his former club in his first NBA game since June 2021, making him among a number of big names who got back to basketball action.
“I’m grateful just to be able to step on that floor, step on an NBA floor again,” Simmons said. “So I had a lot of fun out there.”
Kawhi Leonard also returned for the Los Angeles Clippers, as did Jamal Murray for the Denver Nuggets, after they both sat out last season recovering from surgeries for ACL tears.
“539 days later… BOUT THAT TIME!!” Murray wrote on Twitter.
“Just being able to put all that hard work that I did throughout the, whatever, 14, 16 months, just being able to put that into test playing against NBA talent was good,” Leonard said after the Clippers 102-97 win over Portland. “Just being out there with the guys, talking, I missed it. It was a great experience for me.”
That's no doubt how their teams felt after expecting to be title contenders last season but instead having those hopes wrecked by injuries. Paul George also missed significant time for the Clippers, and Michael Porter Jr. was out for all but nine games for the Nuggets.
They all played Monday, along with Damian Lillard returning for Portland after missing the final 47 games last season, when the Clippers and Trail Blazers met in a preseason game.
“As a fan of the game, Kawhi being back is great for basketball, Jamal Murray being back is great for basketball,” the Nets' Kevin Durant said. “All the guys that have been out injured and able to play again, it’s a great feeling just seeing them out there.”
Simmons hoped he was close to playing last February after getting traded to the Nets in a deal headlined by James Harden. Simmons had cited mental health reasons in seeking a trade from the 76ers following a disappointing postseason when he took a bulk of the criticism after the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference was ousted by Atlanta in the second round.
But a herniated disk kept him from making a late-season debut and forced him to get offseason surgery.
Fully cleared now, Simmons was in the starting lineup and finished with six points, five assists and four rebounds in 19 minutes. He went weakly out of Philadelphia, with the last memory of the 2016 No. 1 pick's time there passing up a layup down the stretch of the Game 7 loss to the Hawks. But he looked confident pushing the ball in transition or playmaking from the post — though did miss his only two free throws.
Simmons said he thought he would feel nervous but didn't. Durant recalled feeling anxious when he returned after missing the 2019-20 season after Achilles tendon surgery.
“You wonder how your lungs are going to feel playing in an organized game because playing pickup, working out is different than playing in a game,” Durant said. “So you just want to see where your legs are on the jump shot. So being away for a year, you get a lot of anxiety coming back. I know I did.”
In Seattle, a bevy of big names made their preseason debuts before a sold-out crowd in just the second preseason game between NBA teams in the Emerald City since the departure of the SuperSonics for Oklahoma City.
While there were Clippers and Blazers fans, the prominent color was overwhelmingly green and gold amid constant hope that some day the Sonics will return.
The fans that showed up were treated to Leonard’s first action since injuring his knee during the 2021 Western Conference semifinals, just a few days before Simmons.
Leonard looked just fine, knocking down his first shot 15 seconds into the game and scored 11 points in 16 minutes in the first half. John Wall also made his debut with the Clippers after the five-time All-Star did not play last season. Wall scored five points in 11 minutes and George added 12 points in 16 minutes. All three played just the first half.
Lillard played into the second half and had 16 points in 23 minutes.
The royalty of Seattle basketball turned out, including Lenny Wilkens, Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Jamal Crawford, George Karl, Detlef Schrempf, Sam Perkins and many others connected to the city’s hoops history. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer grabbed the microphone before tipoff and thanked his hometown for turning out.
“I watched thousands of basketball games in Seattle — CYO, little kids, AAU, pro, college, you name it. So if this is a basketball city, damnit, let’s hear it,” Ballmer screamed right before tipoff, eliciting huge cheers from the crowd.
Murray's absence in Denver was even longer, having torn his ACL in April 2021 and leaving him unable to try to duplicate the brilliant postseason he had while leading the Nuggets to the 2020 West finals at Walt Disney World.
Murray scored 10 points in 15 minutes for the Nuggets in their loss to Oklahoma City.
“Those long-term injuries are tough, dark,” Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault said. "These guys do not have long windows to play basketball, they cannot play until they are 50. It’s tough and takes a lot of commitment and work. The progress, especially early on, is almost invisible. You are non-weight bearing for a large amount of time with those types of injuries. Certainly happy for him and wish him well, in terms of staying healthy. He’s a really good player and their team will benefit from having him back.”
AP Sports Writers Pat Graham in Denver and Tim Booth in Seattle contributed to this report.