T.J. Warren is one of the most interesting players in the NBA
for a multitude of reasons. His journey from one-dimensional scorer
to full-blown star during the Orlando Bubble led to Warren being
more nationally recognized.
After being selected No. 14 overall in the 2014 NBA Draft,
Warren was stuck for five years on a Phoenix Suns team with no true
direction. While the Suns searched for better lottery ball odds at
season’s end, Warren’s scoring binges went unnoticed in large part
due to a lack of NBA talent around him. For a few years, Warren and
Devin Booker were the only notable pieces on the Suns’ roster.
Over time, Warren’s fit in Phoenix fizzled out due to the
arrival of wings in consecutive seasons. The Suns drafted Josh
Jackson No. 4 overall in 2017, but the bigger component revolved
around Kelly Oubre Jr.’s arrival in Dec. 2018. Quickly, Oubre's
infectious energy and two-way game made Warren expendable to the
Suns’ future plans.
Although Warren provided endless buckets, his game was missing
simple elements that left him off the mark of underrated players.
Warren was allergic to shooting three-pointers, possessing a retro
game that would have made him a superstar in the 1980s and 1990s.
Also, Warren’s lack of playmaking and defensive versatility forced
him into a box of how Phoenix could best utilize him.
When the Suns needed to make a decision around who best fit
their inside-out duo of Devin Booker and 2018 top pick Deandre
Ayton in the 2019 offseason, the choice was obvious. Suns general
manager James Jones, who was hired on a full-time basis after the
2018-19 campaign, rolled with Oubre and Mikal Bridges to be the
squad's wings of the future. When diving into the advanced metrics,
the Booker-Ayton-Warren trio was far and away the worse three-man
lineup combination when compared with Oubre and/or Bridges.
Add in a surprising No. 11 overall pick in Cameron Johnson that
year, and Warren was squeezed out immediately. Both Warren and
Jackson — the latter of which failed to live up to top-five
expectations — were shipped out for pennies on the dollar to clear
cap space to sign veteran point guard Ricky Rubio and re-sign
Warren’s tenure in Phoenix was known for missed opportunities.
Not being able to consistently carve out a long-term role alongside
continuous injury issues led to a mutual parting of ways after his
fifth season in the Valley. Warren could take over a game for a few
minutes with incredibly unique scoring creativity, but everything
else was lacking when trying to convince yourself of his potential
fit on a great Suns team in the future around Booker and Ayton.
Warren was traded to the Indiana Pacers for cash
considerations... that’s it. No additional players or draft capital
were included for the scoring wing from North Carolina State. It
turned heads around the Association for the lack of value received,
but, as mentioned, it was a cap-clearing maneuver for Rubio and
A motivated Warren arrived in
Indiana, a much better fit for his score-first game to be
insulated by a strong defensive foundation led by Victor Oladipo,
Myles Turner and Malcolm Brogdon. During Warren’s first season with
the Pacers, he thrived within his role while also showcasing a
newfound effort on the defensive end when seeing how others around
him cared so much about it. Warren averaged a career-high 19.8
points while shooting 40.3% on three-pointers.
The added element of an outside shot appeared during Warren’s
final season in Phoenix, where he converted on a blistering 42.8%
on 4.2 attempts per game. For years, Warren missed this
ever-important offensive feature, but he’s now been a 40.5%
three-point shooter since the 2018-19 season. The Suns still wanted
to get rid of Warren because of his high usage, which would take
away shot opportunities from Booker and Ayton — even with added
floor-spacing acumen. In Indiana, Warren was able to realize how
lethal he could be as a three-level scoring threat.
During the Orlando Bubble, Warren’s status around the league
reached an entirely new level: an unexpected rise to pseudo-star on
ESPN's Wide World of Sports campus in Florida. Warren was
incredible for the Pacers during this stretch in the midst of a
worldwide pandemic, averaging 26.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.9 threes
and 2.4 assists per game while shooting an incredible 47.5% on
long-distance opportunities. When Warren scored a career-high 53
points against the Philadelphia 76ers, helping Indiana seal a
victory late, the forward’s confidence grew to extremely high
levels. Warren saw himself on a different tier, and for good
Exiting a bubble environment, expectations were sky-high
internally and externally from Warren and the Pacers. They saw him
as an important member of their core who had the potential to carve
out an even larger role throughout the 2020-21 campaign.
Unfortunately, the injury bug bit Warren once again before his
most important season yet got off the ground. Warren opted for
season-ending foot surgery after four games, which kicked off a
roller-coaster season for Indiana that was littered with injuries
and drama revolving around first-year head coach Nate Bjorkgren.
Warren’s absence was felt throughout the season, because Indiana at
points struggled to generate consistent offense without a primary
option available. Shortly after Warren’s surgery, Oladipo was
traded to Houston in a four-team deal where Indiana netted
promising young wing Caris LeVert in return.
Now the Pacers face the proverbial fork in the road. Rick
Carlisle is back in the saddle again as Indiana’s head coach after
a decade-plus-long stint with the Dallas Mavericks. Carlisle’s
modern coaching philosophy plays right into Warren’s strengths,
particularly those that were showcased throughout the jaw-dropping
bubble run. The Pacers believe the coach was the main issue,
canning Bjorkgren for Carlisle. If Carlisle is unable to improve an
underachieving Pacers roster, huge changes could be in store once
2022-23 rolls around. Warren’s future is at the top of that list of
potential outcomes where the pendulum could swing one way or
Entering the final year of his $50 million extension signed in
2017, Warren has certainly outplayed his annual value with his
offensive evolution and improved defensive versatility. Looking
ahead to a 2022 free-agency class where stars will be lacking across the
board, a jackpot opportunity awaits Warren if he returns to
Orlando Bubble-form on a daily basis. There’s a chance for Warren
to enter 2022 free-agency as the No. 1 option available for teams
with flexible cap space. A $100 million or more contract is in
arm's length from Warren. All he needs to do is replicate his
resurgent debut season with Indiana, while avoiding another injury
to add to the laundry list of prior setbacks.
Warren will either be a member of the Pacers long-term or serve
as a launching pad for another organization — at February’s trade
deadline or next summer as a unrestricted free agent. As a player
who can score 20 points per game in his sleep, while also giving
more consistent effort as a defender, Warren can help change the
fortunes of many franchises looking for one last punch of offensive
The soon-to-be 28-year-old wing knows this is his big
opportunity for a massive payday during his prime. For that reason
alone, plus his continued all-around evolution on the basketball
court, Warren is certainly one of the most intriguing players to
follow throughout the 2021-22 season.