ARTHELIA AND TONY Warren Sr. sat glued to the television inside their Raleigh, North Carolina, home on the night of Aug. 1.
“Baby, look here. He got 19 points already,” Tony noted after the opening quarter of Indiana’s first seeding game against the Philadelphia 76ers. “He might have a big game tonight. He might get 50!”
Tony sold his son short. More than 600 miles away at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, T.J. Warren posted a career-high 53 points.
“When you’re in the zone like that, it’s just tough,” the Indiana Pacers forward told ESPN. “I always knew I was capable of doing all this, but to be able to do it in this type of setting under these types of circumstances going on, it’s tough.”
Warren quickly proved he wasn’t a one-game wonder, averaging 31.0 PPG on 57.8% shooting during the restart to earn first-team All-Bubble honors. But Warren’s leap wasn’t entirely unexpected.
“He’s just a hooper,” said Devin Booker, his former teammate with the Phoenix Suns. “That’s the term to describe T.J.”
Warren might still be teammates with Booker if not for an offseason trade that sent him to the Pacers — a trade that was a straight salary dump from the Suns’ perspective. All Phoenix received back from Indiana was cash considerations.
“The way they traded him on draft night, I thought that was bush league,” Tony said.
Warren didn’t let it bother him. Instead he focused on contributing to a winning organization, one that has provided him with his first taste of postseason basketball. The challenge now for Warren is to translate his strong play in the NBA’s restart to the playoffs, where the Pacers face a 2-0 series deficit against the Miami Heat. And he’s ready to prove the doubters wrong again.
“I’ve always been underrated, the underdog, whatever you want to call it,” Warren said. “I feel like it’s just been a pattern and my permanent position just to be the underdog, the underrated guy. So I’m comfortable with that. I love to keep a chip on my shoulder.”
LONGTIME BREWSTER ACADEMY coach Jason Smith was driving to his home in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, on Aug. 1 when his phone began blowing up.
“T.J.’s going off,” said the text message he saw as he glanced at his phone.
The Pacers forward was up to 29 points at halftime — the most by any Indiana player in the first half all season — en route to the 53. Smith wasn’t surprised to see Warren score in bunches, even if it had come a little differently when Warren was in high school.
“I may have indirectly contributed a little bit to the chip,” Smith said with a chuckle. “I was probably the only fool of a high school coach that brought a McDonald’s All American and future lottery pick off the bench.”
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The coach said he brought Warren off the bench as a senior not because he didn’t deserve to start but because Smith loved the instant offense Warren provided in his lone season at Brewster Academy. Warren was one of seven players from that team who went on to play professional basketball, including his current Pacers teammate JaKarr Sampson.
Despite coming off the bench, Warren averaged 21.3 PPG and earned the aforementioned McDonald’s All American nod. He went on to play two seasons at NC State, finishing third in the nation in scoring (24.9 PPG) as a sophomore. The Charlotte Hornets could have drafted the in-state product with the No. 9 pick in 2014 but instead selected Noah Vonleh. Warren ended up going to Phoenix five picks later.
“I was always self-motivated. Never allowed nobody to put a limit on my talent,” Warren said. “No matter what the political stuff was or anything from high school, college to the NBA, you always face adversity, but I feel like it’s how you respond and how you rise to the occasion.”
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY GRANDPA,” was the text Tony Warren Sr. sent to Pacers head coach Nate McMillan.
It was two days after T.J. Warren’s career night. McMillan, a new grandfather, celebrated his 56th birthday with a victory over the Washington Wizards in which Warren finished with 34 points and 11 rebounds.
McMillan had long been a Warren fan. A Tony Warren Sr. fan, that is.
“His father was a legend in our community,” McMillan said. “He was a guy that I used to watch growing up. His father, Tony, was an excellent ballplayer in our community, was able to be one of the first in the community to go to a big ACC school and play at NC State.”
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The Pacers’ coach grew up in Raleigh when the older Warren was playing for Norm Sloan’s legendary NC State teams. Tony Warren Sr. was a sixth-round pick of the Chicago Bulls in 1979 and played briefly overseas before settling back down in Raleigh and developing a relationship with McMillan, who followed in his footsteps at NC State.
“[He] was a guy that many of us wanted to be like, so I’m very close with Tony,” McMillan said.
Pacers GM Chad Buchanan told ESPN that the team was aware of the relationship between McMillan and Warren’s family when the Pacers acquired Warren last summer but that it didn’t play into the decision to pursue him. The team wanted Warren for his play. The fact that he was in the second year of a four-year, $50 million extension he’d signed with Phoenix — a relative bargain in today’s NBA — didn’t hurt either.
“Nate has always been a fan, as have we from a front-office perspective,” Buchanan said. “The relationship was a bonus.”
Still, there was a risk for the Pacers, even though they didn’t have to give up a player or any draft assets to acquire Warren. (In fact, they got a second-round pick from the Suns for taking him on, one they flipped to the Heat for three future second-round picks.)
Although Warren averaged 18.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.5 assists with the Suns in 2018-19, he played just 43 games that season and had missed 111 career games heading into this season.
This, however, has been Warren’s healthiest season by far, as he missed just four of the Pacers’ first 65 games before the NBA’s mid-March shutdown. He did miss one seeding game with plantar fasciitis, but the team says it’s not serious and shouldn’t cause him to miss any playoff games.
The other knock on Warren was that while he could score, he was inefficient and ill-suited for the modern NBA. Over his first four seasons in the NBA, he attempted just 1.3 3-pointers per game. He did most of his work in the midrange, something that might have frustrated modern analytics experts but that appealed to his coach.
“If you’ve seen his father play, he was a midrange guy, soft touch, about the size of T.J., and their games are very similar,” McMillan said. “Played in the paint, a real smooth game, they both were forwards, and when I watched Tony and I watch T.J., they walk alike. I mean, it’s almost like he’s been cloned.”
Still, McMillan knew he needed more from Warren. During the hiatus, McMillan challenged him to extend his range, and Warren made that a focus of his workouts. When play resumed, Warren — who was attempting just three 3-pointers per game before the shutdown — had the green light. He attempted a career-high 12 3-pointers in the Pacers’ first restart game, draining nine of them to match a franchise record. In the Pacers’ eight seeding games, Warren averaged seven 3-point attempts per game, making 52.4% of them.
“I worked very hard on my shot,” Warren said. “[McMillan] just wanted me to take more 3s. When I’m open, just shoot it, and the worst thing that can happen is you miss it and you get another opportunity at it. … If you’re open, shoot it, no matter where you’re at.”
T.J. Warren continues to light up the bubble as he drops 39 points on LeBron James and the Lakers, including a clutch 3-pointer late in the fourth to ice the game.
NOT TOO MANY days pass in Warren’s life when he isn’t in touch with his mentor, David West. The now-retired two-time All-Star played four seasons for the Pacers, going to the Eastern Conference finals twice. Like Warren, West got his basketball start in North Carolina, and the two talk frequently on the phone, including in the days leading up to the NBA restart.
“I thought he was in a good space,” West said. “If you know T.J., you know he’s really edgy about the game. He didn’t know what to expect in terms of how they would approach that first game. He just felt like he was just going to go out there and play. He knows how to be himself. It wasn’t surprising.”
West’s brother Dwayne introduced David to a young Warren after bringing him in to play for their Garner Road AAU program in Raleigh. As David West developed into an NBA All-Star in New Orleans, he beamed about Warren to his teammates, including Chris Paul, telling anyone who would listen, “That dude is coming.”
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“When he came to us, you could just tell he was one of those basketball kids,” West said. “You looked at him and you definitely knew he had the makeup to be a really good player. He just wanted to be in the gym. He played all the time and he didn’t do anything that wasn’t related to basketball, and that was his focus.”
That was evident to Warren’s parents when T.J. was even younger.
In the fall of 1999, the Warrens registered T.J. for his first game at Eno Valley Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina.
“When the game started, they thought he wasn’t 6,” Tony said, laughing while thinking back on that moment. “I had to show the birth certificate. Parents thought he was about 8 or 9.”
Warren racked up a game-high 27 points that day in a pair of white Nike Air Max Penny IV sneakers. An action photo from the game still lives on his Instagram account.
“They said, ‘That kid can’t be that good,'” Tony said. “I was just sitting there watching. I knew he was into basketball, but I didn’t know like that. He loved shooting the ball.”
Warren’s love for shooting has never been in doubt. After he put up 34 points against Washington during the seeding games, Wizards coach Scott Brooks said, “Around the league, coaches know how good he is. He can flat-out score.”
But Warren wants to be known as more than a scorer. West is helping with that, giving Warren advice on handling the increased pressure and attention that comes with playing in the postseason.
“He’s just encouraging me and giving me much-needed advice heading into the playoffs and understanding what this time of the year means, going into the playoffs,” Warren said. “So he’s a guy that has been there and done that, had a very successful career, so it’s good to have him in my corner throughout the process.”
This is Warren’s first taste of postseason basketball. He has averaged 18 points per game as the Pacers have fallen into a 2-0 hole. But the challenge of trying to lead Indiana to its first-ever comeback from a 2-0 series deficit is nothing compared to the five losing seasons under four different coaches he experienced in Phoenix. Indiana, by comparison, has had McMillan at the helm for four straight years and has missed the playoffs just once in the past decade.
“I always felt like it was definitely a blessing in disguise,” Warren said of being traded to the Pacers. “I couldn’t ask for a better situation.”
Still, those closest to Warren know the trade that put him in that situation still stings and continues to motivate him, even if he won’t say it himself.
“What Phoenix did and the way they sort of gave him away, in my opinion, to Indy, nobody will ever have to motivate him to play,” West said. “That’s enough. Nobody has to ever do anything else to him because that was like the final straw. I know that just that idea drives him crazy.”