NBA Film Room: Why Contenders Should Gamble On TJ Warren

TJ Warren, Indiana Pacers, NBA
NBA Analysis Network

There has already been significant movement in NBA free agency, but TJ Warren is an intriguing player that remains unsigned. He was sidelined for the entire 2021-22 season due to stress fractures in his foot and appeared in just four games since the 2020 NBA Bubble.

The 2019-20 season was the most recent season when Warren consistently was available to play. He appeared in 67 regular-season games and averaged 19.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.5 assists. He shot 53.6 percent from the floor, 40.3 percent from deep, and 81.9 percent on free throws.

Warren, the player who averaged 26.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.4 assists in 10 games in the NBA Bubble, is now fully healthy. He is unlikely to command a significant contract due to the injury concerns surrounding him. Still, regardless, he displayed impressive potential that could pique the interest of contending teams seeking to add a scorer.

The Indiana Pacers are rebuilding after deciding to move on from Domantas Sabonis and Caris LeVert at the NBA trade deadline. Those efforts continued with the trade to send Malcolm Brogdon to the Boston Celtics on Friday.

With Tyrese Haliburton, Bennedict Mathurin, and Chris Duarte headlining their young core, favoring their development organically seems to be their goal. The 2023 NBA Draft is perceived as being a loaded one. Teams will not want to be mediocre if they feel they can instead position themselves for a top pick. The Pacers appear to be among them.

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The Pacers are coming off a 25-57 season, further leaning into the youth movement could result in another top 10 pick. Not re-signing Warren would help their efforts in maximizing draft positioning. He’s very much available as an unrestricted free agency currently as a result.

Why NBA Contenders Should Be Intrigued

With TJ Warren being a stout, 6-foot-8 forward, he can play on the wing and fill a small-ball power forward role. There are plenty of advantages that are presented to a team by deploying him at the four.

Given that Warren is highly unlikely to land on a team where the half-court offense is frequently running the initial action through him, his dramatically improved catch-and-shoot ability is important. During the 2019-20 season (including playoffs), he shot 80-194 FG (41.2%) and produced 1.175 points per possession (PPP) in these situations. Even against contests, he got it done.

With Warren solidifying himself as a 3-point shooting threat, he’s made it easier on himself to attack off the catch since closeouts have to be made more aggressively. This is when he can play bully ball or get to a tougher floater if the situation requires it. His impact in this area is a significant weapon for a team that spaces the floor significantly within the half-court.

Sometimes, an attack off the catch can be a simple one-dribble pull-up after a shot fake or pause to force a fly-by. Other times, there is some tough shot-making required to salvage a play against an aggressive defender and a set unit. It’s not common to find a role player who can execute as well as Warren in these situations and it undoubtedly raises the ceiling of an offense.

Warren’s all-around skill-set as a threat attacking off the catch made him one of the league’s more efficient threats in 2019-20. If he’s spacing in the corner, he can attack the low-man on the recovery or attack nail help when spacing from the wing. There are plenty of floor spacing options that are unable to offer much outside of catch-and-shoot. He’s far from being such a player.

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With Domantas Sabonis as the central hub for the Pacers’ half-court offense, the team often involved him as a ball screener, in addition to being the orchestrator of handoffs. Teams did not respect his jump shooting ability and feared his impact in the paint — resulting in a frequent deployment of drop coverage in ball screening situations. Such circumstances often required Warren to get to his floater game in the gap since the on-ball defender went over the screen.

Before the NBA Bubble, Warren was doing a lot of his damage in mid/short-range when running a ball screen. If the defense deployed drop coverage, he was able to get into the gap for a pull-up jumper. When he didn’t take a floater and got into short-range, he could use his size and change directions to still get his shot off effectively.

In the NBA Bubble, Warren showed more willingness to take pull-up 3-pointers. It remains to be seen how effective he will be on these attempts in a regular NBA environment. He doesn’t need to convert at an elite clip by any stretch. His strengths as a ball screen scorer make this area a luxury.

As Warren showed with his time playing alongside both Sabonis and Turner, he excels in handoffs. He can get to his regular pull-up or floater against a big that decides to stay in a drop. He also takes advantage of the momentum he has going toward the basket using his frame on drives. He’s a load to hand for any defender when he turns the corner, and these sequences afford simple chances to do so.

A half-court offense can get creative with how they attack by integrating Warren into the fold. His improvement as a catch-and-shoot threat allows him to be deployed as a motion shooter in off-ball actions or handoffs. If the defender takes away the simple catch-and-shoot look, he gets to do what he does best: attack downhill to make a play.

When Myles Turner was deployed as a ball screener, Warren looked more often to take advantage of the spacing afforded to him by attacking the rim. He can get to the rim against drop coverage as well but as previously mentioned, he tends to favor taking floaters in those situations. Regardless, he can be successful with any style of big man.

For any team, it’s not easy to find capable isolation scoring threats outside of their main star players. It goes a long way when a big wing can not only be trusted to put the ball on the floor and get a bucket but when they’re highly effective at it? It’s a major weapon. Things tend to break down in the half-court during the playoffs and a big wing that can attack off the dribble is a great equalizer.

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Warren presents another threat that can attack in isolation, and with teams increasingly relying on pick-and-switch sequences for mismatching hunting, he has a lot of value. He can use his quickness against bigs when attacking off the dribble while having the size and strength to bully smaller defenders. He has the tools to convert tough floaters and short-range jumpers when a clean initial outcome isn’t there.

Warren can be used as a weapon in ball screening actions, whether setting a regular ball screen or a “Ghost” screen. He can be used as a decoy to bring up a less impactful defender to force a switch for a star player to attack, or he can simply knock down a catch-and-shoot jumper or attack off the dribble if his man stays attached in the action.

If a team needs a player who can outright get buckets one way or another, Warren is a great option. He can go long stretches without touching the basketball but still find a way to make a play when the flow of the game calls upon him to get aggressive. The injury concerns will drastically lower his price tag

Potential Concerns NBA Contenders Should Know

The obvious concern with TJ Warren begins with an injury history. He’s fully healthy now but has only played four games in the last two seasons. Stress fractures are never a good thing to deal with as a professional basketball player. His next contract is undoubtedly going to reflect that.

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Remember that Warren has never appeared in 70 or more games within a single season in his NBA career. He’s appeared in fewer than 50 games in five of his eight seasons in the league. As long as the contract is a low-risk move, the track record he’s established of being expected to miss a significant number of games each season is easier to accept.

From a basketball standpoint, there is mostly just nitpicking that can be done when analyzing the limitations in Warren’s skill-set. He’s improved his weaknesses as a shooter in such a way that he now has a rare all-around scoring impact, both as an initiator and as an off-ball threat.

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As previously mentioned, Warren hasn’t typically been an overly willing or consistent pull-up 3-point shooter, so against teams that deploy deep drops or overload the strong-side, he may have to rely more on tougher short-range outcomes that could have instead been perimeter shot creation sequences. As an initiator, it makes it more challenging to be as effective when attacking using ball screens.

Warren isn’t much of a facilitator, but again, he will likely be brought into a situation where he’s a complementary talent focused on scoring. His heavy focus on scoring becomes more of an issue for an offense when he’s filling a primary or secondary role. In such a role, getting teammates involved and keeping the defense honest is more important.

Logical NBA Free Agency Landing Spots (July 1): Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets, Washington Wizards, Brooklyn Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, Cleveland Cavaliers, Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks

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About Grant Afseth 1066 Articles
Grant Afseth is a contributor to NBA Analysis Network who specializes in creating in-depth analysis. He also covers the Texas NBA teams for FanNation.