We’ll often say that a true basketball savant, a LeBron James or a Draymond Green, “thinks the game at a high level,” or something like that. That may be true, but only when they’re off the court, watching film. There is no time to think on a court, certainly not an NBA one. Successful NBA players operate at such a high level that basketball conundrums your average folk would have to think about - “we’re trapping the pick-and-roll and now I’m responsible for two on this side but we’re committed to not letting player X shoot any corner threes, what do I do?” - turn into a game of pinball. Just hit the button, obviously. Read and react.
In this sense, injury rehab can be defined as accelerating the body to match the mind. That is a painstakingly long process. You think about every step you take with the injured extremity. A trip up a handful of stairs is an office meeting you’ve been dreading all day. After a while, you might hop on one foot, back and forth over a line on the ground, a very specific instruction with a very specific purpose. Eventually, you sprint for 20 seconds and answer questions on how it felt for much longer. It is the antithesis of being an athlete.
T.J. Warren rehabbed consecutive left foot fractures for two years before he returned to NBA action this November. But the true rehab process does not end at that first trip to the scorer’s table check-in for the first time. The body still has to catch up and then overtake the mind...
Payton Pritchard defending Warren is a win for Brooklyn every time, but you can see the wheels turning. “Okay, I have Payton Prtichard on me, uh, let’s get into something,” and instead of a calm, deliberate post-up, it turns into a sloppy isolation. Warren, a funky mid-range scorer that will occasionally remind Nets fans of Caris LeVert, just sized up and slowed down by 10%, is smoother than that.
But that Celtics game was in early December, and T.J. Warren is up to seven games played for Brooklyn. With each passing contest, there are less awkward moments and more glimpses of the player Brooklyn hoped they were getting when they made the low-risk/high-reward signing in the offseason.
Warren knows this; he told our own Chris Milholen prior to Wednesday’s contest vs. the Warriors, “I feel like I’ve been adjusting pretty well, I think better than what people want. But it’s always room for improvement. I’m still getting my legs under me. So it’s getting more and more comfortable out there.” As Warren gets more comfortable, the vision becomes clearer. It becomes the thing.
The most simplistic way to describe it is that T.J. Warren, not Royce O’Neale, is Brooklyn’s Bruce Brown replacement. No, it’s not apples-to-apples, and every player is unique, of course, but bear with me. What we’ve seen from Warren is a physical defender who thrives in the short-midrange area. As he regains his legs, as his body catches up to his mind and conscious decision-making turns into instinctual prowess, there is an avenue for the ex-Pacer to thrive by playing off Brooklyn’s stars and commandeering the middle of the court. That all ring a bell, no matter how faint?
It starts with outstanding touch between about 5 and 15 feet, which has already been on display in his short Brooklyn tenure...
This is no small sample size phenomenon, either. Basketball Reference tallied Warren as shooting 200-of-416 between three and 16 feet in his final full season in Indiana. That’s good for 48.1% on elite volume, and he got in done in all sorts of ways, from fadeaways over each shoulder to floaters and push-shots. Warren will shoot open threes and make them at a decent clip, even scraping 40%, but if there’s a hard close-out he’s trying to get to 12 feet and rise up. While capable from deep, his presence beyond the arc will not sound alarm bells for defenders. So how do you weaponize that next to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, two capable mid-range scorers in their own rights?
Well, take these plays, two buckets that come off of doubles sent to KD, the second of which precipitated by a timely cut to the middle of the floor...
Brooklyn has struggled reacting to Durant doubles, predictable as they are, all season. To be fair, Ben Simmons, in the main part of his job description, has handled the task of release valve decently. But Simmons, particularly since the knee-related setback, is looking to spray the ball to a 3-point shooter immediately, and the defense does not have to guard him until he’s gotten all the way to the basket. Warren is the inverse; he’s looking to score the ball, and you better guard him as soon as he’s inside the arc. Even then, it may not matter.
You can see the ghost of Bruce Brown in these clips. Looking at a Durant double like his personal Bat-Signal, maneuvering around the edges of the paint, cashing in contested floaters. Warren’s already stumbled into a Bruce Brown special, a cut into a dribble-handoff to spring an open shooter...
It looks awkward, but the result certainly isn’t. KD drives into the paint and four seconds later, Joe Harris is attempting an open three on the other side of the court, thanks to T.J. Warren. He’s cutting away from an open three, but he creates a better look anyway. It certainly helps that Scottie Barnes is so preoccupied with making sure Warren doesn't fire off that sweet jumper that he doesn’t recognize what’s going on until its too late.
That is the type of connectivity and winning in the margins of Brooklyn’s offense that Warren has already brought, and could bring in spades as the season progresses. The vision of him as a microwave bench guy, cooking lesser defenders when Durant and/or Irving sit is fun, but less applicable to the ceiling of this team. Don’t get me wrong, it will be quite the sight when Warren takes a guy like Payton Pritchard to the post for an easy 2, but your ultimate playoff value is how you perform next to your team’s best players. Warren can thrive.
There’s even more surplus value where that came from. Even without his legs fully underneath him, by his own admission, he’s committed to grabbing P.J. Tucker-esque offensive rebounds by sneaking in from the corner once his defender forgets about him...
No, Warren is not going to add a bunch of rim attempts to Brooklyn’s shot profile although some of his 13-footers will turn into lay-up attempts as he re-acclimates to NBA basketball. Sam Hauser absolutely pwned him at the rim in that Boston game; I wouldn’t bet on that being a common occurrence. Offensively, Warren has served as an immediate complement to Durant, and with time, he could see a role as an anchor for non-KD lineups depending on how much of his scoring ability returns as that left foot heals.
KD-Simmons-Warren lineups intrigue me, giving KD two very different but equally smart connective pieces to serve as release valves seems beneficial. We’ve only seen that trio play 23 possessions together; that’s a number I’ll be keeping tabs on.
The larger question of finding the best line-up combinations to utilize Warren will likely be an ongoing one, but one thing is clear already: It’s great that he’s a wing with some size, but aside from avoiding being a mismatch-huntee, he doesn’t do much to alleviate Brooklyn’s size problems.
Just because you’re a solid 6’8” doesn’t mean you can be a small-ball 5. Yes, I do want to see lineups with Warren and Durant, and possibly Simmons, manning the front-court, but they will face the same old size questions against bigger front-lines. Warren isn’t protecting the rim in help or keeping the opponent’s bigs off the glass, it’s just not his game. Here’s a couple of prototypical back-up bigs, Chris Boucher and Daniel Gafford, either grabbing O-boards on Warren or tagging him with a foul attempting to do so...
In case anybody was wondering if Warren was the answer to Brooklyn’s back-up 5 spot, stop wondering. There’s massive potential offensively by playing him next to Durant and/or Simmons, absolutely, but it’s not like Warren over O’Neale or Harris is going to make a difference on the defensive glass.
This is not to say Warren isn’t a physical defender, however, That’s actually where he may remind Nets fans of Bruce Brown the most; he loves to get up into whoever he’s guarding, no matter who they are, and establish his presence. Think the opposite of Nic Claxton, who cheats with superhuman length to stand further away from his man in the hopes of preventing a blow-by...
One thing I noticed while watching Warren this summer is how closely he plays up into his matchup. You got a glimpse of that last night on this possession against Jayson Tatum. https://t.co/ipM1sK5rJQ pic.twitter.com/Ywg41tmyST— Matt Brooks (@MattBrooksNBA) December 5, 2022
And the dude can still move his feet, even off the injury. In just his second game back, Warren was containing Malcolm Brogdon, premier paint penetrator, like nobody’s business, and the lateral quickness has only improved since then...
And he takes pride in it.
“I’m fully confident in myself. I know what I can provide for a team. Just being a two-way player, locking in on defense,” said Warren Tuesday. “I feel like a lot of people didn’t think I can play defense. I don’t know where that narrative came from, but I’ve been improving on that end as well as being a scorer. Just being aggressive when I’m locked in.”
I started this article out by lamenting the arduous process of rehabbing an injury, a process T.J. Warren is all two familiar with after two lost seasons of his career. And not just any seasons; there was no basketball for him at ages 27 and 28 after dominating in “The Bubble,” including a 53-point game. You can think about the money he undoubtedly missed out on. You can think about the mental fortitude required to experience a foot fracture, recovery, a devastating setback, more rehab, and a move to a different part of the country in between appearances on an NBA court.
And yet, in just under three weeks back on the court, I have all this positive film to show of T.J. Warren. After an off-season warning people that it may be unwise to count on a guy who missed two years due to injury, I’m salivating over his return to the court. And that’s just for basketball reasons! The Nets finding a connective piece that loves to defend physically, who crashes the offensive glass and stands at 6’8”? Every prior iteration of Brooklyn could have used that guy, as could every team in the league today.
T.J. Warren playing real NBA minutes, though, is a treat regardless of how he performs, even if that performance has been quite promising so far. Two years! Two years he missed! Klay Thompson’s return was rightfully championed last season after a similar layoff. Yes, Warren seems content to fade into the background and do his job quietly, but we shouldn’t lose sight of how special it is to see him do his thing again. Modern medicine is amazing, guys have long primes, even Kevin Durant may be peaking after an achilles injury. But two years down the rehab road is an eternity; Warren looking like he may play a vital role for a team with championship hopes is a testament to an unfathomable work ethic and perseverance .
The T.J. Warren Experience, for Brooklyn, has been as positive as you could have hoped for. There is a role for him on this team, and a pre-Christmas return means ample time to grow throughout the season. As Warren said himself, he’s exceeded expectations already. There are few things more exciting about the Brooklyn Nets than what his future may hold.