Indiana Pacers

Pacers are allowing T.J. Warren to be the best version of himself

T.J. Warren is more or less the same player he’s always been, but the Indiana Pacers are helping him become the best version of himself.

Whether by the stat sheet or the most basic eye test, T.J. Warren is more or less the same player he was last season for the Phoenix Suns. He’s still an efficient scorer, not particularly known for his defense but sporting a recently added, surprisingly reliable 3-point shot.

Yet in many respects, he’s having a career year with the Indiana Pacers. Some of that is from a renewed focus on the defensive end. Some of that is by virtue of playing for a much more competitive team. But mostly, it’s because the Pacers are just better suited to incorporate both his strengths and weaknesses, and it’s shining through as Tony Buckets grows into his best self.

It may sound like an Instagram hashtag in the caption of a New Year’s Eve pic, but it really has been a case of “new team, same me” for Warren. The contrast in developmental environments was pretty clear Wednesday night when the 26-year-old wing returned to Phoenix to face his former team.

In a 25-point rout of the Suns, Warren led the Pacers with a game-high 25 points on 11-of-18 shooting. It was an understated statement game — perfectly emblematic of the typically quiet and reserved player himself — after Phoenix traded him for nothing but cash considerations and cap space over the summer.

“That’s what he does, he’s done that his whole career,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “Not one 3-point shot, just 2, 2, 2. You force him to take those shots, but he made them. He took 18 shots tonight, made 11. That’s the game within the game, you have to know a guy like that is going to come back here and try to make you pay, and he did.”

It may have felt like a revenge game on paper, especially after Phoenix essentially dumped him to create the room to sign Ricky Rubio and re-sign Kelly Oubre Jr., but for Warren, this was just another game. He’s the same player he’s always been, with almost the exact same mindset, and Wednesday night was no different.

“There was a lot of emotions but as soon as the ball went into the air it was time to play basketball, and that’s all I was focused on,” Warren said. “It definitely felt good to come back to a place where I spent my first five years. Like I said before, they gave me my start, they started my career. I’m very grateful for that and it feels good to get a win. Same approach as any other game to me. It’s all basketball. It’s all about hoops.”

No hard feelings. No resentment. No extra gut punch for his former team. Just a continued commitment to the improvements he’s made to his game over the last two seasons, which are finally getting their day in the sun on a Pacers team that’s on pace to win just under 53 games without Victor Oladipo even back in the lineup yet.

To be fair, a look at the basic numbers shows little change in Warren’s production from last year to this year. In fact, the stat lines are nearly identical:

  • 2018-19: 18.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.2 SPG on .486/.428/.815 shooting splits
  • 2019-20: 18.0 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.1 SPG on .513/.375/.821 shooting splits

However, chalking his career trajectory up to these raw averages would be ignoring one major tweak and two under-the-radar improvements he’s made to his game over the last two years: from beyond the 3-point line, around the basket, and on the defensive end.

Warren didn’t attempt a single 3-pointer Wednesday night, but after canning a career-high 42.8 percent of his 4.2 long-range attempts per game last season, he’s still shooting a very respectable 37.5 percent from deep for Indiana, even if his attempts have slightly dipped to 3.1 per game this season.

Even so, the Pacers have been perfectly fine with this minimal trade-off, since the man still knows how to get buckets from all over the floor.

“Offensively, it was early and we were trying to find a way to get the ball to him and basically just give it to him and get out of his way,” Pacers head coach Nate McMillan recalls of the integration process. “He can put the ball in the basket.”

That’s never been in doubt, but the key has been how he’s been getting those shots. The Pacers are embracing his mid-range mastery, and through 45 games (comparable to the 43 he played last season in Phoenix), he’s already taken more shots from that area and made a much higher percentage of them.

In 2018-19, Warren took 118 shots from 10-19 feet, only making 40.7 percent of those mid-rangers, per NBA.com. So far in 2019-20, he’s already taken 203 shots from the same range, making a blistering 49.3 percent.

That, along with his increased prowess around the basket, explains the jump in his field goal percentage. Warren is shooting 63.6 percent around the basket this year — a pretty sizable uptick from the 58.1 percent he shot on those same looks last season.

Sharing the floor with intelligent playmakers like Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis obviously makes it easier for a purebred scorer like Warren to operate, but what of the defensive end? His shortcomings on that side of the ball always limited his upside on a bad defensive team like Phoenix, but with the Pacers, a combination of holding himself more accountable and having capable defenders around him has raised his ceiling in this league considerably.

Wednesday night, Warren chipped in three steals and helped limit Devin Booker to 16 points in 31 minutes. The Suns starters stat for most of the fourth quarter with Indiana’s lead well out of reach, but Warren’s effort on that end provided a staunch contrast from his first five years in the league, when he was mostly known as a sieve on that end.

“He’s a great one-on-one defender,” Sabonis said. “He takes it personally, he believes in the system and he just wants to get better, and that really helps us.”

Though it takes a team effort to hold an elite scorer like Booker in check, Warren’s commitment to that end of the floor hasn’t been overlooked, especially on a night where he drew the toughest defensive assignment just to put some size on the Suns’ leading scorer.

“He has come in from day one and just done whatever we’ve asked him to do,” McMillan said. “We challenge all of our guys to defend and he’s been one of our consistent defenders out there.”

Make no mistake about it, T.J. Warren is not some defensive stalwart all of a sudden. According to NBA.com, the Pacers are still 1.8 points stingier per 100 possessions with him off the floor, but even being passable on that end has made his microwave scoring that much more valuable on a winning, functional team.

“It’s been pretty smooth,” Warren said of the transition. “These guys embraced me for the player I am and I’m just going to continue to play hard on both ends for them, continue to take on tough assignments with great players like Book, and just try to challenge myself on that end. I want to prove myself, that I can defend at a high level, so I’ve just gotta keep going.”

Part of that goal to “keep going” is simply a byproduct of being available. Some of Warren’s finest moments in a Suns jersey were often halted by random injury woes, limiting him to just 40, 47, 66, 65 and 43 games over his five years in Phoenix. As McMillan noted, he hasn’t missed a single game so far this season, playing in all 45 of Indiana’s contests.

T.J. Warren is pretty close to the same player he’s always been, especially compared to last season when he diligently worked to add a 3-point shot to his arsenal. Now, with a functional franchise that has the right pieces to accentuate his strengths and cover for some of his flaws, Tony Buckets’ game is living up to its true value — all while being given the avenues to improve defensively.

It’s amazing what a change of scenery can do in this league, and the Indiana Pacers getting the best version of the player T.J. Warren has always been serves as a prime example.

“Absolutely, it’s a lot of fun,” Warren said of his new situation. “Just coming into a family-oriented organization and just continuing to build and get better with these guys. Everybody complements each other, everybody gets along. This is just a great environment like that.”

Next: 10 NBA players who could use a change of scenery

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