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T.J. Warren: the mystery man of Nets off-season

Boston Celtics v Indiana Pacers Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

This is, as every Nets fan knows, the off-season of if’s. IF Kevin Durant wants to run it back. IF the Nets want to keep Kyrie Irving. IF Ben Simmons is both happy and healthy. IF Joe Harris can return to form after two ankle surgeries. IF, IF, IF...

But the other big IF, as Brian Lewis wrote Saturday, is how much T.J. Warren will mean to the Nets ... IF he is healthy. Warren was signed to a one-year, vets minimum deal in the days after KD made his trade request. Add that unfortunate timing to two missed seasons due to a fractured foot and you can understand why the lack of hoopla. There was no welcoming press conference for him (or Royce O’Neale or Edmond Sumner.)

But again, IF the 6’8” Warren is the player we watched during the last season he was healthy — the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 — the signing will wind up being remembered.

As has been noted before, Warren, 28 years old, averaged a team-leading 19.8 points for the Pacers including a monster six-game stretch in the Bubble when he put up 31.0 a game including a 53-point masterpiece that included 9-of-12 from deep.

Lewis goes deeper that the basic numbers and suggests that Warren’s ability to make both the three and mid-range shot could help him fill one of the Nets needs.

At 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds, Warren can play either spot on the wing. He’s largely been a small forward, but has been effective in doses as a small-ball power forward as well, his ball skills and solidly built frame letting him overcome a middling 6-foot-9½ wingspan.

Warren shot 53.6 percent overall in 2019-20, 40.3 percent from 3-point range and 81.9 percent from the free throw line.

“T.J. is a proven three-level scorer with the size and versatility to make an impact for us,” Sean Marks said in a statement after signing Warren. “We think T.J. is a great fit on the wing, and we’re excited to welcome him and his family to Brooklyn.”

Lewis notes how Warren’s multi-level offense can help Brooklyn, with the Nets “Big Three” or some reasonable facsimile.

[P]layers who can attack in isolation and get their own looks are valuable, especially forwards who can do so against the increasing amount of defensive switches employed in the modern NBA. Warren can bully 3s and can put the ball on the floor and blow by 4s. And he’s a stylistic fit for what the Nets do.

In particular, Lewis notes his prowess in the mid-range, someplace where the Nets thrived when LaMarcus Aldridge was healthy.

He ranks in the 90th percentile among wings during his career for taking the most midrange field-goal attempts, per Cleaning The Glass. Warren provides a simulacrum, albeit a lesser one, of Durant’s and Irving’s dominance in the forgotten art of the midrange. And his vastly improved catch-and-shoot game makes him a better complementary piece than he would’ve been a few years ago.

During the 2019-20 season, including the playoffs, Warren shot 41.2 percent (80-of-194) and produced 1.175 points per possession in catch-and-shoot situations. (His offense was particularly electric in August 2020 in Orlando, where he was named to the All-Bubble team...)

What drove Warren’s high scoring in 2019-20 was his improved 3-point shooting, going from less than 30 percent of his three’s his first four years to better than 40 percent in his last two healthy years. Lewis provided Warren’s shot chart of the 2019-20 season...

In a 2019 visit to Barclays Center, Warren told reporters he’s just opportunistic. He’s take when defenses give him.

“It’s very annoying,” Lewis recounts Warren as saying. “I don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s basketball. I take what the defense gives me. If they want to let me shoot a 3, I’m gonna shoot it. If I can get in a pull-up, then I’ll shoot that. I mean, it’s not really rocket science to me.”

There is a glaring issue, however. Warren’s durability has been a question mark his whole career in both Phoenix and Indiana.

Warren’s injury history and track record — he’s never topped 67 games in a season, and has totaled just four since his brilliant performance in the Orlando Bubble — raises legitimate concerns about his availability. He’s managed fewer than 50 games in five of his eight NBA campaigns.

We may not learn just how good his foot is early on. It may take him some time to get back to game shape after two years of rehab (following surgery by Nets foot/ankle specialist Dr. Martin O’Malley.) But of all the Nets IF’s, his may be the easiest to resolve.