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T.J. Warren’s Two-Way Development

Analyzing T.J. Warren’s emergence as a defensive contributor

Just over a year ago (378 days to be exact), the Pacers began to re-face the core of the roster after a disappointing first round sweep by the Boston Celtics via a draft-day trade with the Phoenix Suns.

Kevin Pritchard and Co. somehow fleeced one-time Pacer James Jones into trading a starting caliber wing and quality draft-pick for some petty cash.

It’s not exactly goats gallivanting around the office, but this trade was immediately a blight to Jones’ early tenure. The blight for Phoenix has been a blessing for the Pacers. T.J. Warren was left off of ESPN’s preseason top 100 player rankings, but expect that to change next year, as he’s been a top 100 player and then some in his first year in Indiana.

T.J. Warren has taken significant strides this season, molding into a borderline All-Star, leading the Pacers in scoring with remarkable efficiency (18.7ppg on 59.9% True Shooting). While an uptick in scoring is a sign of improvement for most players, Warren has been a gifted scorer for much of his time in the league, averaging 17.6ppg since 2017.

So what’s been different for T.J. in Indiana? Defense like this.

T.J.’s defensive engagement has been well-documented throughout the season, but just how good has it been? What’s he been best at and where can he make some tweaks to be even better?

In order to fully analyze T.J.’s defense, I went back and dove into his defensive possessions from his toughest and most versatile defensive assignments this season. Gauging defensive ability can be fairly arbitrary, so I picked the brain’s of Steve Jones Jr., a former assistant coach with the Nets and video coordinator for the Grizzlies (He’s currently one of the greatest follows on Twitter and puts out some great film breakdowns), and Marlon Garnett, who coached T.J. in Phoenix from 2016-2018, and an assistant in Atlanta for the past two seasons.

Point Of Attack

When looking at T.J’s season defensively, it can’t be overstated how significant he was to Dan Burke’s defensive scheme. The Pacers largely employ a drop-scheme and aren’t keen to switch on screens. In order to have an effective defense in this fashion, being able to contain your matchup and fight through screens is essential for Pacer wing defenders.

Due to Victor Oladipo’s absence for most of the year, Warren was given the most difficult perimeter assignment on a regular basis, especially as the season progressed and he grew into his defensive role.

When asked about T.J.’s growth on the defensive end, Garnett said “He has the tools, he has the size, he’s strong. He understands angles because he’s such a good offensive player... TJ’s level on that end in the film I’ve seen, it’s been impressive to see... On the ball when he wants to clamp down, he can do it.”

When he’s fully engaged and locked in, T.J. most definitely has shown flashes of lockdown ability on the perimeter.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has had a phenomenal sophomore season, but struggled greatly against the Pacers, shooting 10/31 from the field across two games. Warren guarded him extremely well and used his length to cause problems for SGA.

He does a solid job of keeping the smaller and quicker Devin Booker in front of him and forces him into a step-back three rather than allowing a drive to the rim.

His ability to fight through the initial screen while remaining on Booker’s hip without fouling and contesting the shot is tremendous (This game was probably his best defensive performance.)

When considering how dominant Luka Doncic was this season, a Top-5 MVP candidate surely, this is about as well as anyone can play him one-on-one. The made basket is more of Luka being an All-World talent than an indictment of T.J.’s defensive ability. Luka played a great game, finishing with 36 points, but T.J. consistently pressuring and forcing Doncic into more difficult shots was instrumental to the Pacers coming away with a 112-109 victory.

In regards to T.J.’s presence at the point of attack, Steve Jones Jr. commented “The biggest key for him to continue growth defensively is going to be consistency...The activity on ball has improved but the physicality isn’t always there. He gives ball handlers space so if they attack him on-on-one or in pick and roll, he’s again reacting instead of anticipating or dictating.”

I completely agree with Steve’s on this. When going through film, there are possessions where T.J. has a tendency to play a little high making it easier to be thrown off balance.

This possession isn’t all bad, quite the contrary. Warren stays in front of Paul George in isolation, but because he’s slightly high in his stance, he’s able to be knocked off his base and allow for separation to be created, leading to a Clipper 3.

What Steve says about “reacting instead of anticipating,” is one of the best assessment’s when watching T.J. on many a possession.

What do these three possessions have in common? T.J.’s first step is just a little off. Against some of the best drivers in the game, that small misstep allows for just enough room to get to the rim. This is showing him “reacting”. It’s important to highlight that this isn’t happening every play, but if he becomes better at not overplaying or overextending and improving his positioning, he’ll be able to keep guys in front of him more often than not.

It’s eerily similar to looking at boxing or any sort of combat sport. If you’re reacting to the punch rather than knowing it’s coming, you’re a half-step behind your opponent.

T.J. has been good to at times very good at the point of attack, but developing his anticipation and first step could elevate him from a solid defensive contributor to a player who can give his matchup fits consistently.

Off-Ball

When looking at off-ball defense, there’s a tendency for guys to really fall asleep or lose engagement in in the play. In regards to T.J., he’s been a mixed bag “Off the ball... the vision and positioning sometimes got him in some trouble in those situations,” said Garnett.

He’s averaging 3.3 deflections per 75 possessions according to Basketball Index, which is in the top 15% among forwards and a great indicator of how active he is in the passing lanes. While some players will have some lazy habits off-ball, T.J. doesn’t fit that billing and is almost too engaged at times, in that he wants to make a play on the ball or overextends himself in help defense.

“He’s better defending purely on the ball rather than on the weakside. He tends to overhelp on the weakside and can use that as an opportunity to relax and ball watch,” said Jones. He also notes that due to these tendencies, T.J. at times will be “late on a cut,” which was something I certainly noted going back through film.

This is a great cut by Jimmy Butler, but you can see T.J. watching the ball, which causes him to be a step behind Butler when he starts his cut, leading to the open two-handed flush.

Again, you can see Warren’s attention diverted to the ball and Bojan Bogdanovic tears off to a fairly easy layup.

Here, T.J. doesn’t an excellent job staying aware of the ball, but also reading the play and getting ahead of the first screen before the play develops. He also fights through the second screen well and funnels Tobias Harris into Myles Turner, leading to a heavily contested shot.

T.J. has shown excellent flashes of creating turnovers and positive plays off the ball.

His contest above the break threes without fouling or clipping the shooter always wows me. The block on Tobias Harris was one of the top Pacer plays of the season easily.

In summing up T.J.’s off-ball defense, there’s definitely room for improvement.

“The biggest key for him to continue growth defensively is going to be consistency. There are flashes but then it goes away,” comments Jones. While it’s certainly improved greatly, T.J. stringing together more consistent defense when he’s not at the POA could do wonders for his game and round-out his defensive skill set.

Rebounding

Often times, rebounding isn't the first aspect of defense that comes to mind. It’s not sexy, it doesn’t get you selected on the blacktop, and it most definitely won’t earn you a highlight reel on YouTube. But, boxing out your man and team rebounding are essential to bolstering team defense.

T.J.’s defensive rebounding and boxing-out is where I believe he could most easily make significant improvements. It’s not about how many boards he corrals, rather how many he can help prevent the opposing team from getting on the offensive glass.

In both possessions you can see T.J. leave his man but also not entirely going for the board, aka getting caught out in No Man’s Land.

Among forwards, T.J. is in the 4th percentile in defensive rebounding percentage per Cleaning The Glass. The Pacers currently sit at 22nd in the league in defensive rebounding percentage and 23rd in total rebounding percentage according NBA.com.stats. Obviously this can’t solely be attributed to T.J., but if he were able to make some tweaks to his defensive positioning and focus more on boxing out, it could certainly have a positive impact on Indiana’s team rebounding.

Conclusions

As highlighted in the article, T.J. has room for improvement and some small strides could really strengthen his defensive resume. Don’t get it twisted: T.J. Warren isn’t just a decent or average defensive player, he has legitimate defensive chops (I’m still actively petitioning 2K to increase his defensive ratings.)

A year ago, I wouldn’t have told you I had faith in T.J.’s ability to defend starting-caliber wing players. Now I’m counting down the days (39) until Warren vs. Butler Round Three. T.J. has fully embraced the defensive mindset that has been a staple of the Pacers organization.

Garnett attributes Indiana’s coaching staff for playing a hand in T.J.’s development “in my opinion a product just of the identity that the Pacers play. That’s a testament to coach McMillan and his staff. Those guys are tough, they play hard-nosed, they play with edge.”

The intensity, effort, and gumption he’s brought to the Pacers nightly are a credit to his work ethic and the emphasis he puts on improving his craft. For a guy who’s never been billed as a plus defender to show flashes of being a consistent defensive stopper cannot be understated.

I can’t wait to watch him continue to progrees as a defender and see where his ability takes him in the Blue & Gold.

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