Disgruntled Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons returned to practice for the first time since ending his holdout, but it remains unclear when he might make his NBA season debut.
Simmons demanded a trade following last season and remained absent from Philadelphia for the first two weeks of preseason work before showing up on October 11 to begin fulfilling COVID-19 protocols that would allow him to re-join the championship-chasing franchise.
The 76ers open their 2021-22 campaign at the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday but head coach Doc Rivers said he does not know whether All-Star Simmons will be available.
"I'm going to wait and see," Rivers told reporters. "Conditioning I would say, just watching him, I thought he was in decent shape. Still not, obviously, game shape."
The 76ers will play their home opener against Eastern Conference rivals the Brooklyn Nets on Friday, and the Australian guard – scrutinised after the team's shock Eastern Conference semi-final loss to the Atlanta Hawks – figures to get an unfriendly welcome from the Philadelphia crowd whether he plays or not.
Perhaps with that dynamic in mind, Rivers was asked whether he had thought about whether to give Simmons his season debut at home or on the road, but he demurred.
something's brewing.— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) October 17, 2021
"No – right now I'm just trying to get him back comfortable and integrated. I'm not even thinking about that," Rivers said. "That'll come at some point but there's no game plan there, I can tell you that. When he's ready, he'll play."
Simmons did not speak to reporters Sunday but team officials indicated he would later this week.
The number one overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft has averaged 15.9 points, 8.1. rebounds and 7.7 assists in four seasons with Philadelphia and has been named to the All-Star Game the last three years.
But the 25-year-old's struggles in the playoffs and a contract that will pay him $33million this season with three years and $114m remaining on his deal after that have made it difficult for the 76ers to find a trade partner.
Getting Simmons back on the court could help in that endeavour, though it appears he may have to work to do to smooth things over with his team-mates.
While guard Furkan Korkmaz told reporters he had missed Simmons and "personally I'm happy to see him back here on the court," forward Tobias Harris declined to get into specifics about an awkward reunion but added that it would not matter once games begin.
"The vibe was what it was," Harris said. "Was it perfect? No. But we're here to do a job, and that's to win basketball games. We put on our big boy pants and get on the floor and do what we do."
Simmons – an elite defender – and his shooting problems were laid bare during the 2021 postseason with the top-seeded 76ers.
Former number one draft pick Simmons had no fourth-quarter field-goal attempts in his last four games of the playoffs last season. He is the only NBA player in the last 20 seasons to have four consecutive postseason games with no field-goal attempts in the fourth quarter during a season in which he was an All-Star, according to Stats Perform.
Simmons averaged just 10.1 field-goal attempts in 2020-21 – a career low, which dropped to 7.9 in the playoffs. It was the same story with his scoring as it dropped to a career-worst 14.3 points per game and 11.9 in the postseason – both career lows.
Then there is Simmons and free throws. He was exposed by rival teams as they regularly sent him to the line, with the Melbourne-born guard making just 25 of 73 shots in the 2020-21 playoffs. His 34.2 free-throw percentage is the lowest ever in a single postseason.