Nets’ T.J. Warren looks to provide depth after making return

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T.J. Warren finally made his long-awaited return to an NBA court on Friday. Now what’s in front of him?

How will the Nets use him, and what does the oft-injured veteran forward bring to the team?

“Just effort,” Warren said. “My ability to be versatile out there, be a two-way player, something I took pride in since coming into the NBA, being able to guard multiple guys. And just be able to be that three-level scorer at the same time and just try to feed off guys to just play hard, trying to be that contagious effort guy.

“Just being aggressive when I go out there, taking pressure off the guys and just being myself. I could always score in this league, so just staying aggressive as well as take pride in defending. Since I came in the league I heard the word two-way, two-way, two-way, so I just want to be one of those guys, a complete player on both ends giving effort. So just take pride in being a two-way player.”

Warren’s appearance in the Nets’ 114-105 win over the Raptors on Friday was his first NBA action in 703 days. His previous game was on Dec. 29, 2020, and the forward essentially missed the past two seasons rehabbing from multiple surgeries on his left foot to fix two stress fractures. He’s expected to be fine and to play Sunday against the Celtics.

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“I had no concerns mentally with my foot. I put in a lot of work to get back to this point. I was super confident in the way I was feeling, the way I was moving,” Warren said. “I was moving pretty good. Only get better from here.”

Despite trying to manage expectations, Warren had 10 points on 5-for-11 shooting and added four rebounds in his return, looking like he’d never left. His 16:38 stint — with his mother Althea among the sellout Barclays Center crowd — represented the emotional capstone of a two-year fight to get back.

“I’ve been talking to my mom a lot. She’s been keeping me emotionally in sync,” Warren said. “Family and friends, they’ve been in my corner through the ups and downs the past two years. Me just being out of sight, out of mind — [people] wondering ‘Where’s T.J. Where’s T.J.?’ — just know I was really working behind the scenes to get to this point.”

But now that he’s here, what can he provide?

Nets general manager Sean Marks’ rebuilding was largely done by hitting on low-risk reclamation projects. Warren could be next, after he signed a minimum contract.

Warren averaged 19.6, 18.0 and 19.8 points in his last three healthy seasons. The final of those came on splits of 53.6 percent field goal, 40.3 3-point and 81.9 foul shooting for a Pacers team that finished fourth in the Eastern Conference in 2019-20. Adding in his three-level scoring and his 6-foot-8, 220-pound frame could make him a steal.

“Overall, just the physical, bigger body that you can put out there: That’s the immediate piece,” coach Jacque Vaughn said. “We can couple him with bigger lineups or smaller lineups, so that really helps — his ability to just score the basketball.

“He’s a scorer. He’s started to stretch his game to 3, which, early in his career, he didn’t do that. His ability to hit little runners and fadeaways and touch-up shots. … At the end of the day he can score the basketball, and we’ll try to put him in positions where he can think instinctively and just play.”

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Warren doesn’t rely on raw athleticism as much as constant motion and savvy cutting. Stretching his range out to the 3-point arc takes him to another level, and makes him a perfect complement to — and backup for — Kevin Durant.

Durant came into Saturday leading the NBA in minutes (882), with Royce O’Neale No. 2 (855). Warren could ease the burden on both.

“We’ve had to play Kevin more minutes than we’ve wanted to,” Vaughn said. “As we continue to get people back into the fold, it really does give us some flexibility to play different lineups. So we’ll try T.J. with [Durant] and we’ll try him without him. But he will hopefully — as he catches up to the speed of the game and his conditioning — give us the ability to play him in a lineup where Kevin can rest.”

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