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October 17, 2021

Ben Simmons returns to Sixers practice, availability for opener still in doubt

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Ben_Simmons_6_Hornets_Sixers_Frese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons.

On a rare Sunday off day for the Eagles, the No. 1 sports story in Philadelphia was the return to practice for Ben Simmons, who is finally ready to rejoin the Sixers after clearing protocols late last week. But if you were expecting any clarity on his status ahead of this week's opener or any clarifying comments from Simmons after a summer of discontent, you're going to be waiting a little longer.

"I don't know yet," Doc Rivers said when asked if Simmons was ready to play n the opener. "I'm gonna wait and see. Conditioning, I would say just watching him I think he was in decent shape. Still not obviously game shape, because you can do all this stuff, but overall, yeah."

Simmons, who Sixers PR said was likely to speak at some point following practice on either Monday or Tuesday, was gone from the gym before media was allowed into practice on Sunday, pushing his first public appearance in the city back just a bit. Other than the word of his coach and teammates, there's not much to go off of to determine whether he's ready for the season to begin, physically and mentally.

Physically, mind you, the Sixers are slightly beaten up by preseason standards. Rivers noted that potential fill-in starter Shake Milton is, "nowhere near playing yet" after recently suffering an ankle injury, and Sunday marked a return to practice for both of Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle, who have been nursing knee and shoulder issues respectively.

So Simmons' availability looms large, both because of the ongoing saga and the state of the team at the moment. They could use another big piece to take pressure and responsibility off of guys who you don't want to overextend this early in the NBA calendar. But Rivers would not commit one way or another to a return to the floor for Simmons.

"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 gameplan there, I'll tell you that. When he's ready, he'll play."

The team mostly downplayed the significance of Simmons returning to practice, with the aforementioned Harris and Thybulle remarking that they were focused more on their own returns to the floor rather than the Australian in the room.

"I live in my world, my reality. It was my first practice back, so that's all I was really worried about," Thybulle said.

As low profile as the Sixers are trying to keep this, there is only so long they can wall things off. If Simmons misses the season opener against New Orleans on Wednesday, his debut could come in perhaps the highest-profile Sixers game of the year, a Friday night home battle with the Brooklyn Nets. A home opener on Friday night against the title favorites would be a huge deal regardless of the surrounding context, and the Simmons circus only heightens the atmosphere.

(Mind you, even if the Sixers opened at home against the worst team in the NBA, Simmons' first game back in Philadelphia would have been the hottest ticket in town. There are a lot of people who want to make their voices heard, boo birds and blind supporters alike, and I envy any season ticket holder who has the opportunity to make a small fortune off of their seats for the clash vs. Brooklyn.)

For the most part, his teammates continue to be professional and diplomatic about the situation, whether they mean what they say or have been coached to say it.A lot of offseason energy was spent on debating standards of professionalism and what it means to be a good teammate, and all that appears to have faded in the background for the time being. At one point, Harris was asked about what Simmons did (or did not) say to his teammates, and declined to reveal anything, comparing that to Harris asking a question to pry into a reporter's marriage.

To a point, Harris is right. Regardless of whether Simmons plays or not, whether he's happy to be here or not, whether the rest of their lineup is healthy and fit, the Sixers have to play a real basketball game on Wednesday, and then play virtually every other day until mid-April. Focusing their energy on that journey is appropriate, especially with the expectation that young players will play a bigger role on the team this season.

"We got an opening to our season coming up, truth be told that's honestly what our focus is," Harris said. "We're grown men here, this is not middle school, seventh or eighth grade. 'Oh you did this to me, you did this,' no, as soon as you step on the floor it's just basketball. Honestly, that's the way it should be, we're here for one thing, that's to be the best team we can be and compete and get better as a group."

"All the other energy, this and that, the vibe was what it was. Right? Was it perfect? No, but we're here to do a job and that's to win basketball games. We put our big boy pants on, we get on the floor, and we do what we do. That's pretty much it."

Where does that leave everyone? We're three days removed from the season opener and the people around Simmons continue to do all the talking and prognosticating about his availability. You can only assume Simmons and his people want it that way, because we're running up against nearly four months of rumors and leaks and proxy battles without so much as a momentary look into how he's feeling.

His return to the floor with teammates seems to have played out the same way — no big opening statement, no apologies, no declaration of intent one way or another. There was just Simmons, his team, and 94 feet of hardwood, shielded from public consumption as they work through an uneasy reality.

"He just showed up," Furkan Korkmaz said Sunday. "It was not like something special, which we expected from him or which he expected us to say something... all professionals, you know? It was just like being a pro. From our side, from his side, it was just, 'Hey, how are you guys?' That's it, you know?"

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