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T.J. Warren’s transformation on defense is already dramatic

Dan Burke for Coach of the Year, amirite?

Detroit Pistons v Indiana Pacers Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Averaging 24.3 points while shooting 53 percent overall, 54 percent from three, and 85 percent from the line, Pistons wing Luke Kennard has been downright luminescent versus the Pacers this season — and last night, for the most part, was no exception. Over the game’s first six minutes, the heady sharpshooter scored or assisted on eight of Detroit’s first 15 points as his team jumped out to an early 15-8 advantage with him treating the area in-between the paint and the 3-point line like an all-you-can-eat-buffet while running two-man game with Andre Drummond.

In one particularly egregious possession, Drummond astutely altered the direction of his screen before making contact so that Kennard could snake his dribble, and Brogdon essentially left Sabonis to his own devices in a lose-lose game of whack-a-mole, thereby prompting Nate McMillan to signal for an uncharacteristic, first-quarter timeout to talk things over.

Shortly thereafter, Brogdon was shifted over to Tony Snell and the length of Justin Holiday and T.J. Warren proceeded to take turns against Kennard, with the latter standing out for all the right reasons.

Per’s recently refurbished match-up stats, over the team-high 18.2 partial possessions that Warren defended the Pacer killer, Kennard scored just four points while shooting 1-of-5 from the field. That’s a significant drop from the aggregate damage that was incurred by all of his other defenders on the night (25 points, 10-of-16 shooting), and stands in stark contrast not only to Warren’s long-standing reputation as a one-dimensional scorer with the Suns, but also from what was evident just a few short weeks ago.

Let’s take a look at some dramatic before-and-after shots, shall we?

T.J. Warren, The Communicator

Before: Who could forget that which was wrought by the Pistons with Spain pick-and-rolls in the season opener? Granted, Warren wasn’t directly involved in the three-man action when Kennard flipped Edmond Sumner’s expectations against him by slipping the back-screen and scurrying to the three-point line, nor was he part in party to when Malcolm Brogdon got caught needing to circle around on a switch. Still, this particular moment is instructive from a communication perspective.

As was previously fleshed out here, over and over again in that match-up it was evident by the way that Myles Turner was glancing over his shoulder that he wasn’t all that confident yet in his teammates to sound the alarm bell as to what was going on behind him.

On top of being racked by the brick walls of those stacked picks, it was also clear that the Pacers hadn’t quite nailed down if and how they were trading defensive responsibilities.

In this case, in order for Turner to play a sort of one-man zone until his man releases from the ball-screen, Brogdon needed to temporarily switch onto Drummond before switching again onto Kennard, rather than continuing to trail Rose when Sumner had already jumped out to the perimeter.

Instead, because he and Sumner weren’t on the same page as to the coverage, Brogdon had to circle around on the pop, resulting in a late contest.

After: So, what does any of that have to do with Warren? For one, credit the Pacers for adapting and committing to the need to switch on these plays, but look at who it was acting like an extension of defensive coordinator Dan Burke on the floor last night.

As soon as the slippery mid-range scorer realized that the Pistons were poised to launch into stacked pick-and-roll, Warren jumped out to the perimeter and immediately barked out orders for Aaron Holiday to abort the over, who then was able to salvage the initial missed switch by recovering with speed and high hands.

Ahh, much better.

T.J. Warren, The Navigator

Before: What T.J. Warren did on his very first defensive possession for the Pacers in a game in which they surrendered 119 points seemed all too fitting. While attempting to intercept a dribble hand-off reversal with his man triggering the pitch, the walking bucket unceremoniously slammed into Jeremy Lamb, effectively setting a friendly fire pick on his own teammate. Two quarters, later he did it again. Only this time, with T.J. McConnell unknowingly acting as his victim, he just abruptly decided to spring out toward the ball, resulting in a brief, albeit accidental, T.J. versus T.J. shove match.

Strangely enough, interspersed with some of those random outbursts of over-aggression were also his fair share of instances where he just willfully died on the vine, like when he shriveled up on this screen from Thon Maker without any recognition, or perhaps care, for the fact that, 1) Turner had one foot in the paint, and 2) THAT’S A SHOOTER.

After: Now, in what should be considered the equivalent of an extreme home makeover reveal, look at how he stayed skinny through this middle ball-screen from Maker before adhering himself to Kennard’s hip like a barnacle so as to limit his ability to rise-up for a shot while also enabling Sabonis to stay rooted inside the lane lines and in front of Drummond.

That Warren also kept his hands active and knocked the ball away after Kennard attempted to clear space was just the cherry on top. Oh, what a difference a few weeks in a system that calls for individual accountability and demands effort makes.

T.J. Warren, The Competitor

Before: After seemingly exchanging defense for offense over the offseason, it didn’t exactly come as a surprise that the team’s raw scoring power was ahead of their ability to string together multiple stops during preseason play, but that doesn’t mean that some of the more outward mistakes — especially those uncharacteristic from seasons past — weren’t slightly jarring.

Such was the case here when, just a few moments after having inexplicably commandeered the on-ball assignment from Brogdon on a slipped screen, Warren had no idea where the ball even was once he was no longer in self-appointed charge of corralling it.

Almost the exact opposite happened the next day, when like a moth to the flame he was so on where the ball was that he never saw his man drifting to the corner and the subsequent hammer screen coming.

In both cases, the mistakes were borne from falling asleep when not directly involved.

After: With that in mind, focus in on the discipline and attack he demonstrated at the close of last night’s game, when instead of relaxing away from the ball or gambling for the steal, he maintained ball-you-man principles and then slid his feet to square up Kennard before eventually contesting the shot.

Once again, it’s hard not to notice him — except, this time, it’s for something he successfully did rather than for something he erroneously didn’t.

None of which is to say he’s a finished product. Even last night he still had a few moments where he got hit by a screen and reverted to his default setting of automatically calling for a switch, but there’s no denying that he’s a definite work in progress. And in the sense that this is already happening over the span of nine games for a player who the Pacers were gifted a pick to take a crack at, that’s pretty darn dramatic.