AP Exclusive: Ben Simmons fell in love with basketball again

Sports

FILE – In this May 5, 2019, file photo, Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons reacts during the second half of Game 4 of the team’s second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Toronto Raptors in Philadelphia. Simmons, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2016, has helped lead the Sixers to the second round of the NBA playoffs two straight seasons after making his debut in 2017. He was the Rookie of the Year that season and an All-Star for the first time last season. Simmons has averaged 16.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.9 assists and signed a $170 million, five-year contract extension in July. But the one knock against Simmons has been his reluctance to shoot long jumpers and 3-pointers. He’s 0 for 18 from beyond the arc, so defenses often focus on taking away his ability to drive to the basket and dare him to shoot. He’s up for the challenge. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola, File)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Videos of Ben Simmons making jumpers flooded social media over the summer and the All-Star point guard is ready to take his game to another level when the Philadelphia 76ers open camp next week.

“I feel like this summer I fell in love with the game again,” Simmons told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “I kind of got back to who I was and having fun with the game. I felt like the past season I lost that enjoyment side of it but I feel like this summer has been huge for me. Just the work I’ve been putting in, I kinda fell in love with putting that work in again and I’ve been in the gym every day working and the results have been paying off so I’m excited for the season to start.

Simmons, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2016, has helped lead the Sixers to the second round of the NBA playoffs two straight seasons after making his debut in 2017. He was the Rookie of the Year that season and an All-Star for the first time last season. Simmons has averaged 16.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.9 assists and signed a $170 million, five-year contract extension in July.

Philadelphia is 101-58 in regular-season games when Simmons plays. He has had 22 triple-doubles in the past two seasons, tied for third most in the league with Denver’s Nikola Jokic and trailing Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook (59) and the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James (26).

Simmons also has had 80 double-doubles over the past two seasons.

But the one knock against Simmons has been his reluctance to shoot long jumpers and 3-pointers. He’s 0 for 18 from beyond the arc, so defenses often focus on taking away his ability to drive to the basket and dare him to shoot.

He’s up for the challenge.

“I’m ready to be who I am as a player, continue to develop, keep working,” Simmons said. “It’s a process. It takes time. Obviously, people always want to see results straightaway but that’s not how things work.”

Simmons decided to focus on improving his game instead of playing for the Australian team at the FIBA World Cup earlier this month in China. He rediscovered his love for basketball during those long hours in the gym and admitted the criticism weighed on him at times.

“I think sometimes you kind of get too deep into it where you listen to other people which should never be the thing you do unless they’re giving you positive feedback or trying to help you get better because there’s a lot of negativity out there,” Simmons said, pointing to various social media platforms.

“It’s huge once you kind of block that out, you don’t really care, you kinda go out there feeling free. You don’t care if you miss a shot because everyone misses a shot so that’s one of the things that I think this summer I got back to how I was as a player just playing and doing what I love at a high level.”

Despite being a lightning rod for criticism in Philadelphia, Simmons says he enjoys playing in front of a passionate fan base.

“I love being in Philadelphia. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” he said. “I think this is the perfect place for me. I just handle (criticism) how it comes.”

Simmons heard plenty of boos after a poor performance in Philadelphia’s first-round series opener against Brooklyn in April. He had nine points, seven rebounds, and three assists and shot 1 for 5 from the free throw line in a loss. Afterward, Simmons said: “If you’re gonna boo, then stay on that side.”

Simmons answered with his second career playoff triple-double in Game 2, finishing with 18 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds as Philadelphia reeled off four straight wins. He looks back at it as a learning experience.

“I had a terrible first game and I loved it when people are tweeting me saying all these negative things because the next game I came out (and played better),” Simmons said. “It kinda fires me up a little.”

Why does he even pay attention to the critics flexing their keyboard muscles?

“It’s hard to avoid. It’s hard to not see,” Simmons said. “I’ve done a better job of not watching certain things in terms of what people are saying but that was a good example of people not giving me positive feedback and I had to respond.”

The Sixers revamped their roster in the offseason, losing Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick and adding Al Horford and Josh Richardson and retaining Tobias Harris to play with Simmons and fellow All-Star Joel Embiid.

“We’re locked in. We’re ready to play,” Simmons said. “We’ve been in the gym. We’ve been there early. We’re competing trying to get each other better from the rooks to the guys who are vets. I think it’s going to be an exciting year for the 76ers.”

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