For the first time in nearly two years, T.J. Warren stepped onto NBA hardwood to play a real-deal game of professional basketball. Warren has missed the last two seasons rehabilitating from surgery on his left foot, an extraordinary duration of recovery. As such, his Nets debut against the Toronto Raptors was an emotional one; it was a monotonous achievement of beating the odds.
“It feels like it’s a real moment. It’s been a long process, a very long one. To be able to get to the day, it means a lot,” said Warren. “So I’m just super, super excited.”
Two years is a long, arduous recovery period, and many across the league wondered when—and if—Warren would touch the floor again. TJ, however, was resolute in his belief that he’d get back out there.
“No, it was never I was never gonna (return). It was just I didn’t know. Like, I knew I was gonna come back, I just didn’t know at the multiple foot surgeries. Four-to-six-month recoveries both times,” said Warren. “So it was a difficult process dealing with it and it’s passed me now. So I’m here. Excited to be here, ready to do what I love to do—and that’s play basketball—and just excited for tonight to be able to get on that court.”
That said, Warren did mention that his time off gave him some perspective of a world without basketball, perhaps an early glimpse into his career post-NBA.
“It was definitely an eye-opener,” said Warren about his layoff. “It made me just look at myself in the mirror and realize that one day the ball will stop bouncing. So it just put things in perspective in that way.”
Warren gave credit to a variety of people in his circle for helping him get to this point. His family and friends, for starters, but especially his mother. Warren said he spoke to his mom throughout the week, and she kept him “emotionally in sync” in preparation for his first game with Brooklyn.
Warren, who signed with the Nets on a minimum-level deal and was largely considered a “flyer” type of player, also gave credit to Brooklyn’s training staff for “attacking” his difficult rehabilitation process. He certainly isn’t the first player to do so in recent Nets history.
“The training staff here has done a tremendous job from top-to-bottom overcoming this injury. It’s a very difficult injury, I dealt with it for two years. They knew how to attack, and they did a great job,” said Warren. “So credit to them for getting me back to this point. I’m very grateful for that.”
And then finally, he gave kudos to Seth Curry and Joe Harris, each of whom is recovering from foot (ankle) surgery, for providing Warren with some perspective regarding his re-acclimation process.
“Just getting their feedback and how they felt during their process of coming back, some similarities of dealing with foot injuries, and it kind of gave me peace of mind knowing what they were doing,” said Warren before modeling some of the internal dialogue he with himself after speaking to Curry and Harris. “‘All right. Okay. Okay, It’s gonna take time.’ It’s just like one of those things, just gotta keep working your way back.”
Warren’s return couldn’t come at a better time for the Nets, who are currently without Yuta Watanabe (knee) Ben Simmons (knee) at the wing position. Warren, a small forward, gave Nets fans a taste of what to expect, providing a scouting report that largely matched the one posted on NetsDaily yesterday.
“Just effort,” Warren stated when asked about what he’ll provide on the floor. “My ability to be versatile out there. Just be a two-way player, that’s something I took pride in since coming to the NBA. Just being able to guard multiple guys and just be able to be that three-level scorer at the same time. And just trying to feed off guys... just trying to be that contagious effort guy.”
Jacque Vaughn noted that Warren’s versatility and portability could be greatly beneficial for the Nets as a wing that can slot into multiple lineups, big or small. Vaughn also touted Warren for his impressive scoring abilities. T.J. shot over 50% from the field, 40% from three, and averaged nearly 20 points per game in his last full season.
“Just the physical, bigger body that you can put out there, and that’s the immediate piece. So we can couple him with bigger lineups or smaller lineups. So that really helps,” said Vaughn about Warren. “His ability to score the basketball. He’s a scorer. He started to stretch his game to three; early in his career, he didn’t do that. His ability to hit little runners and fadeaways and touch-up shots, you’ll be able to see that.”
And though it’s down the line, if Warren can return to form, there’s a world where his emergence allows the Nets to minimize the load on Kevin Durant’s shoulders, who currently leads the league in total minutes played.
“We’ve had to play Kevin probably more minutes than we want it to, and that’s just kind of where we are,” said Vaughn. “(Warren) will hopefully, as he catches up to the speed of the game and everything and his conditioning and everything, give us the ability to play him in a lineup where will Kevin can rest.”
But of course, that’s a ways away. For now, Vaughn is managing expectations; he’s just happy to see Warren out there playing the game he loves.
“I think we have to be smart in expectations—what that looks like, what his minutes look like, what his wind looks like,” said Vaughn. “But I think the goal is just to see him in a uniform and playing excited about basketball again.”
Warren echoed his coach's measured approach, though he did display some exceptional confidence in himself.
“Just getting my legs under me,” said Warren about his immediate goals. “I know it’s gonna be a process. I mean, anybody you talk to that comes off a long layoff, it definitely takes time. But like I said before, I love to hoop. I play basketball all the time... before the injury, obviously. It’s like riding a bike for me.”