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T.J. Warren faces Suns for 1st time since being traded to Pacers

Indiana Pacers forward T.J. Warren drives down the court with the ball in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

PHOENIX — There were never a whole lot of T.J. Warren jerseys worn throughout Talking Stick Resort Arena during his time playing with the Phoenix Suns. He will not be one of the most memorable Suns players of the past decade, nor talked about much in relation to the Suns in the coming years.

That’s not fair to Warren, a unique and fun-to-watch player whose legacy in Phoenix over a five-year stretch could have been much bigger on a successful team.

If you really think about it, a player like Gerald Green, a sharpshooting sparkplug for the 48-win 2013-14 team, probably brings about more nostalgia amongst Suns fans after he played one season in Phoenix.

Alas, that’s the way it goes sometimes, and the hope was that in Warren’s return on Wednesday night, before he scored 25 points in a Pacers win, he would receive the proper ovation he deserved when Indiana faced the Suns.

Warren, the Suns’ 14th overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft, was traded last offseason to Indiana along with a second-round pick for cash considerations. That move was the one primarily responsible for Suns general manager James Jones having enough money to sign point guard Ricky Rubio.

The trade made sense in terms of roster balance for Phoenix as well. The Suns had too many wings with Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mikal Bridges on board, not leaving them enough room to play Warren, who they didn’t feel comfortable with giving serious minutes to at power forward.

While the Suns this season could still find a role for him, Warren’s average salary of $12 million over each of the next three seasons would handicap their flexibility. The deal allowed them to commit to players like Rubio and re-sign Oubre on a new contract.

At his introductory press conference with the Pacers, Warren said he believed the Suns “messed up” by trading him and wanted to prove he was worth more than just cash considerations.

Warren wouldn’t say anything ill of the Suns on Wednesday, which, honestly, he wouldn’t have been wrong in doing. As Devin Booker’s longest-tenured teammate ever, Warren knows the struggles of the past four seasons as the Suns failed to win 25 games in each.

This is the same franchise that also drafted Josh Jackson and Mikal Bridges at his position and traded for Oubre, all despite Warren remaining productive and efficient when healthy.

Warren is one of the few perimeter scorers in the league that can shoot 50% from the field on decent volume, with his career number at 49.9%. It shouldn’t surprise Suns fans to hear that he’s remained that way with Indiana, shooting 51.0% this year for 17.8 points per game, which is tied for his team’s lead.

“I mean, he’s a bucket-getter. He’s been that since day one,” Booker said of Warren on Wednesday.

With Warren spending the first five years of his NBA career in Phoenix, it was obviously weird being back.

“I was about to run into the Suns’ locker room,” Warren said at shootaround. “It feels good to be back.”

Warren has always been highly regarded by his teammates — you wouldn’t know it by the shyness he’s shown fans and media — but he’s a character once a relationship is built.

“That’s my guy,” Bridges said. “I’ve always been close with T.J., sat next to each other on the plane every away game. He’s a good dude. He helps you out on and off the court.”

“Funny dude. Once you get to know him and get close to him, he’s hilarious.”

Warren is now playing in a defined role on a team that’s won 28 games in just more than half a season — that’s more wins than the Suns won in each of his last four full years with the Suns — was a good break.

“When I saw that happen [last] summer I was so happy for him and I knew he was in a great spot,” Bridges said. “Obviously, we’ll miss him but Indiana is a great program with a great coach.”

The transition has been great for Warren.

Indiana bolsters an All-Star quality guard duo of Malcolm Brogdon and, eventually, Victor Oladipo with an All-Star quality big combo of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. The Pacers, though, didn’t have anyone to play as the wing between those four, where Warren has naturally fit into place.

As a floor spacer, Warren is continuing his success as a three-point shooter from last season at a 37.5% mark this year. He serves as a nice complement to that foursome because of the scoring threat he provides.

Pacers head coach Nate McMillan had nothing but good things to say about Warren.

“Done a good job for us on both ends of the floor,” McMillan said. “We knew that he could score and put the ball in the basket. He’s been a solid contributor for us on the defensive end of the floor as well.”

There’s obviously something built up for Warren in his first game against the Suns since being traded, but he will be comfortable in a building he knows and will try to treat it like just another night — even though it won’t be.

“I’m nervous before every game but once I settle in it’s basketball at the end of the day,” he said. “Looking forward to seeing some familiar faces and have fun playing basketball.”


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