T.J. Warren returns to far different, ‘upbeat’ Phoenix Suns team

Feb 14, 2023, 4:17 PM

TJ Warren #12 of the Phoenix Suns high fives Devin Booker #1 after scoring against the Portland Tra...

TJ Warren #12 of the Phoenix Suns high fives Devin Booker #1 after scoring against the Portland Trail Blazers during overtime of the NBA game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on November 2, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Trail Blazers 118-115. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — It snuck in there.

Inevitably, when there is a trade involving Kevin Durant, the other guys in the deal aren’t going to matter as much. But after the initial shock value wore off, there was a realization that the other player coming back to Phoenix could end up being very important as well.

T.J. Warren returns to the Valley four years later in quite a strange way, beyond the fact that he was part of a blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets.

Part of the reason why he was traded shortly before the 2019 NBA Draft was that Mikal Bridges required legitimate playing time after his rookie season. Later on that draft evening after Warren was dealt, Phoenix selected Cam Johnson with the 11th overall pick, giving Phoenix another wing that would have clogged up an overcrowded position.

Warren went from not mattering as much in the Suns’ grand, long-term vision because of Bridges and Johnson to his arrival mattering more in the Suns’ grand, short-term vision due to Bridges’ and Johnson’s departure.

The Suns have changed just as much as the circumstances surrounding his status with the team.

In his five Suns seasons, Warren won 126 games. In Phoenix’s last two campaigns, it racked up 115 victories. Include the playoffs and the number is 136.

The only organization Warren knew was the one fair to describe as tumultuous. He was here for a lot of it. Head coach Earl Watson getting fired three games into the 2017-18 season. General manager Ryan McDonough getting fired nine days before the start of the 2018-19 season. Eric Bledsoe tweeting from a hair salon.

Those days on the basketball side are long gone. For the franchise as a whole, owner Mat Ishbia coming in hopefully has the same effect on the workplace.

“We were probably the laughing stock of the NBA about 4-5 years ago and just turning that around to something serious, to championship contenders, is a quick turnaround for us,” Suns guard Devin Booker said Tuesday. “We take a lot of pride in what we’ve built here.”

Warren has noticed.

“It’s an upbeat feeling,” Warren said Monday of his new first impression. “Lots of structure, lot of continuity, guys knowing what they doing — just feel like [there’s] consistency here so I just want to contribute to that.”

He spoke with the media from the new state-of-the-art practice facility, not the practice court inside Footprint Center that has seen enough eras that it made an appearance on The Last Dance.

“Aw man, this is definitely an eye-opener,” he said. “Walking into the facility was a great feeling. Feels good to be back.”

“Feels like a whole new organization from top to bottom,” Warren added. “Just surreal to be a part of this right now.”

Warren will still run into some familiar faces off the court in his first week back but the one on the court is the face of the franchise.

“Tony is somebody that was here my rookie year and was one of the last ones on the team before he got traded from that first initial group that was here,” Booker said. “We’ve always kept in contact. I always say it’s bigger than just basketball. And developing relationships with these guys that are all from different places and T.J.’s somebody I’ve always had a lot of respect for and kept up with. I was excited for him to get back healthy, get back on the floor and now to be back here, back home — I’m excited for him.”

Booker is not the slightest bit complicated as a teammate. If you truly love basketball and take your craft seriously, you’ve earned his respect, like Warren did.

The new-look Suns, to Warren at least, under head coach Monty Williams and president of basketball operations and GM James Jones are easy to understand and fit in with as well.

Let Booker explain.

“He’s a hooper,” Booker said. “That’s rule number one to walk into this gym. You gotta love the game. And T.J. is a little more quiet, you might not hear the most words out of him but he loves this game of basketball, he knows the history of the game — he’s just a bucket. That’s the longevity in this sport: If you can get a bucket by any means and he’s one of the guys that can do that.”

When the Nets were last in the Valley in mid-January, Booker hosted Warren at his house, where they hung out and reminisced about old times.

“Book, he’s still the jokester, still the hard worker,” Warren said. “You get all types of personalities with Book.”

When we last saw Warren, he was shipped off to the Indiana Pacers with the No. 32 pick in that 2019 NBA Draft (KZ Okpala!) in exchange for cash, a terrible move on paper but a sound one with the context of it freeing up money so Phoenix could sign point guard Ricky Rubio in free agency. It’s an underrated “What if?” in the Suns’ all-time history, as Rubio’s lone season with the Suns ended with the 8-0 bubble run, which led to the Chris Paul trade.

Warren at the time was a clear rotation player with a useful No. 1 skill, scoring in bunches and doing so very efficiently, all while not requiring a featured role within an offense. His far more confident, refined 3-point shot (42.8% for his last Suns campaign) and knack for offensive rebounding (1.9 a game in two of his last three seasons) helped make up for some of his deficiencies with playmaking and defense.

He was one season into a four-year extension and was still valuable to what Phoenix did. But the Suns’ wing rotation suddenly went from just him to three instrumental players, thanks to a draft-day trade in 2018 for Bridges and the worst game of telephone in NBA history landing them Kelly Oubre Jr.

Warren was one of a few exits that summer in the start of the Jones and Williams era as they started constructing the DNA profile of what we’ve come to know as a Suns player.

Since then, a relatively under-the-radar but straightforward player has gone through a roller coaster with more downs than ups.

For Year 1 with the Pacers, Warren averaged a career-high 19.8 points per game, and in the bubble, exploded to 26.6 a night over 10 games. It looked like a breakout moment for a then-26-year-old that could become one of the most important players on a contender.

But four games into the 2020-21 season, Warren suffered a stress fracture in his left foot that would force him to miss the rest of the year. Nine months later after surgery, he was still not ready to go for last season. Somewhere in that timeline, Warren had fractured that foot again. So, rehab began again. He had returned to full basketball activities with a dozen games to go last season, but Warren elected to sit out the rest of the year ahead of free agency, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

That is when Warren signed with Brooklyn on a one-year minimum deal. Despite that reporting from March of last year that seemed to indicate he was good to go, Warren remained out for the start of Brooklyn’s debut and didn’t debut until December, making it 23 months and some change since he had last played.

Warren, who was rarely as personable with a smile in the past than he was on Monday, is someone who you can tell went through a lot and came out of it better.

“Being off for two years, I really got to look myself in the mirror and just really sit back and observe so much,” Warren said. “I worked so hard to get back to this point and it definitely feels good to be back playing the game I love.”

In his 26 appearances for the Nets, it’s some of the same Tony Buckets we know while he’s still understandably trying to rediscover that as well.

The nickname that comes from his North Carolina State days, one Warren said Booker makes sure to keep alive, is pretty self-explanatory. His name is Tony (technically, Anthony). He accumulates buckets.

“Tony Buckets forever,” Booker said.

Warren’s ability to shoot just about 50% on 12 shots per game over his Suns career came down to being a great finisher around the rim and possessing sound touch from the midrange.

In his five Suns seasons, Warren shot 67.3% at the basket, per Cleaning the Glass. The percentage of his total shots there roughly adds up to 40%, a very decent rate for a wing.

But that number would sometimes check in at 50% for the midrange, where Warren was fairly efficient and was for Brooklyn too.

As Booker pointed out — and Williams would as well — the necessity of that skill set will never fade.

“The thing I’ve always saw with him is his ability to just get a bucket,” Williams said Monday. “He can score the ball and he’s got size. Even in the game we played against them in Brooklyn, when he touches the ball, you just kinda knew you were in trouble. He can score in a number of ways.”

The extended injury break, however, was such a bummer, particularly because of how much work Warren put into his 3-point shot. As I wrote back on that draft night, it went from one he would turn down multiple times a game to him shooting right over strong contests by defenders.

Warren loads up a bit but the instinctive lack of hesitation in his shot — combined with consistent mechanics — allowed him to make defenses pay when Booker got trapped.

We might see this same play again in some fashion nearly a half-decade later.

This year on a tiny sample size of just 48 attempts, Warren looks like a guy who was severely hurt by all the time away. His form and such is back to a mixed bag, resulting in a mark of 33.3%. And you know what, that’s to be expected for how long his layoff was. He knows what he’s capable of and how he got to the point of looking like a plus shooter, so let’s just wait and see there.

Ditto on his defense, where Warren was less a clear negative and more of someone who didn’t make much of an impact. Williams mentioned the Suns’ tendency to switch defensively and how someone like the 6-foot-8 Warren could really help.

If those two skills are present consistently enough, Warren is a lock as the fifth starter by the time the playoffs roll around, or at least as the guy who closes games in that position. If not, his offensive pedigree as a scorer is still something Phoenix requires in the rotation. Keep an eye on his minutes too, as Warren has only been back for two months.

It’s a deserved second crack for Warren at playing some basketball in the Valley that really means something now.

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