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Q&A Delving into T.J. Warren

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Dave King from Bright Side of the Suns stopped by to chat about T.J. Warren.

Charlotte Hornets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

With Myles Turner, 23, set to enter his fifth season as the team’s only returning playoff starter from 2018-19, as well as the longest tenured player on the roster, the Pacers are about to look a whole lot different than they did just a few short months ago when they got swept at the hands of the Boston Celtics, especially until Victor Oladipo returns. In fact, according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, Indiana is one of only five teams in the league bringing back less than 45 percent of last season’s minutes. As such, in an effort to get a better handle on the team’s quietly dramatic offseason, we’re bringing back our annual offseason Q&A series to delve deeper into what each of the newest Pacers brings to the table.

Today, we’re kicking things off with Dave King, managing editor of SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Suns, to learn a little bit more about hybrid forward T.J. Warren.

Battling a bone bruise on his left ankle, Warren missed the final 33 games of the season and ended up falling just five 3-point attempts shy of earning a $250,000 contract incentive bonus. Was this the expected timeline for his injury, or were there indicators that maybe this was an organizational decision in anticipation of an eventual trade?

Long story. Buckle up. When the injury was made public in January, they gave a 2-week timeline for full rest from games and practices to let him heal. Apparently, T.J. had been dealing with ankle soreness since December but was playing through it. For a little while, we assumed that timeline was convenient leading up to the trade deadline, but a trade never materialized. The Suns said they wanted to keep him, but then he never even came to practices let alone back into the lineup. There were never even reports of additional MRIs or anything, which is common from teams whose players are out longer than expected. It’s possible the injury was fully legit, but most people around the team whispered that he was healthy enough to play but wasn’t. We never got to the bottom of whether it was T.J.’s decision or not, but the Suns did periodically tell us he was cleared by the training staff to return whenever he wanted because he couldn’t make it worse but would have to endure lingering pain similar to what he was dealing with in late December and early January. I personally had a deep bone bruise in my ankle last year after stupidly running one of those Rugged Maniacs and it took me six months to be able to run again pain free (though I didn’t have any NBA training staff to rehab me). What shocked all of us was T.J. not even magically returning for the final couple games to jack up five threes for the $250,000 bonus. The Suns publicly said he was invited back, so I assume if they were lying about that then T.J.’s reps would have made sure to clear the air with the media. I still don’t entirely know what happened.

There were rumblings ahead of Draft Night that the Suns had discussed T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson in several separate trade packages, as well as the No. 6 pick. How surprised were you that Phoenix ended up sending out the No. 32 pick along with Warren to the Pacers? Did you see him as a positive asset?

I know ESPN’s Amin Elhassan did a local interview where he said the Pacers got the call from the Suns and thought the trade proposal (T.J. AND 32 for nothing) was a joke, and then said yes immediately so the offer wouldn’t go away. I don’t doubt this is true, frankly because the Suns would have made sure something leaked to counteract that story. So let’s assume that’s true: the Suns called out of the blue to offer Warren AND the #32 pick for nothing but cap space. Amin also said the Suns had been offered a “first round pick” in February, which made the June trade even more of a joke. This is all weird to me. I’d imagine the “first round pick” offered in February was going to be attached to a bad salary they didn’t want. What the Suns really wanted was cap space to make all their other moves, considering they only had about $9 million in space and needed starting caliber power forward AND point guard that summer.

How surprised were we when it happened? Totally surprised. But then, not. T.J. was super-redundant on a team that had little talent outside Devin Booker and a half dozen small forwards not skilled enough to play power forward. And his old-school skill set never lent itself to the modern game. During our annual SB Nation Mock Draft each year, I’ve made Warren available to almost every blog two years in a row and got no takers. He just isn’t that valuable as a trade asset, especially with a four year greater-than-midlevel contract to pay.

Per Basketball Reference, Warren logged 99 percent of his minutes at power forward last season. It seemed like that was somewhat out of necessity, but assuming his adaptation into a multi-level scorer holds on a team with an airtight defensive system, what is his ideal role?

I’ve inquired with BR on the position they give someone, and the answer is that they give the minutes allocation to the tallest player on the court that officially plays that position. At 6’8”, T.J. was always the second tallest guy on the floor (Oubre, Bridges and Booker are all 6’7”; the only taller guys were Ayton and Holmes, who always played center) so he always got the PF nod by BR. The sad part is that he WAS the de facto power forward last year because he was second-tallest. No smoke and mirrors here. Unfortunately, T.J. is not a power forward at all. He has little to no desire to rebound the ball, and so the Suns finished somewhere around 29th in rebounding despite having an okay rebounder at center all the time. Among T.J., Oubre, Bridges and Booker, no one wanted to bang inside and/or box out for boards.

T.J.’s best best role is small forward, coming off the bench as a microwave scorer. You just have to cover for him defensively, because he’s just simply not good in any defensive aspect, either individually or in a team scheme. If covered well on defense, he can be a net positive as a scorer.

Only 25.3 percent of Warren’s pick-and-rolls led to shots for his teammates last season, and he passed on just 16.7 percent of his drives, the lowest rate in the league among players averaging at least five drives per game. Was this a case of the Suns needing him to be a scorer, so there’s a chance he might have some untapped potential as a playmaker, or should the Pacers be expecting that they probably won’t get much else out of his plays when he doesn’t score?

Sure the Suns needed T.J. scoring. Absolutely. So that exacerbated the black hole on passing. But having said that, T.J. is definitely just a scorer and not a playmaker for others. He occasionally busts out a woke pass that makes all of us excited, but then you don’t see any of those again for weeks. When he drives, his head is down so there’s no chance he will see the open guy when two other defenders sag into the paint to triple team his drive. Still, he somehow gets those shots off and makes almost half of them! You will love how creative he is, getting his shot off against six long wavy arms between him and the basket. That’s his bread and butter.

Bring him off the bench. Ask him to score. And don’t expect much else. That works all over the league with some of the best sixth man candidates, so here’s a chance to have one of your own.

Alright, last question: At his introductory press conference, Warren said, “I feel like everyday matters here. I feel like every day is taken seriously.” Were there signs that he was frustrated with the culture in Phoenix?

Everyone was frustrated with the culture in Phoenix. Everyone. Ryan McDonough was the bad Hinkie in that every deal was an asset grab. He only made deals to add new individual talent, and not knowing how those players would fit together. And every damn season was a tank job for the next high level asset. So yes T.J. was frustrated. Five years in the league, one complete team meltdown (2015) followed by four tank jobs. Never winning more than 24 games in any season as a regular rotation player.

You might see a brand new ‘3J’ now that all the games count. I hope you do. He means so well, and tries so hard. I hope he gets to experience being the playoff scoring leader off the bench in a deep playoff run or three.

Good luck, Tony Buckets!