NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

How did T.J. Warren become NBA's bubble superstar?

NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

With no fans in the building and extraordinary measures in place to keep a global pandemic out, wonky stuff was bound to happen inside the Orlando bubble. 

But T.J. Warren turning into peak Kevin Durant? This is an entirely different idea.

The 26-year-old North Carolina State product set the Orlando bubble ablaze. In his first three games, the 6-foot-8 small forward scored 53, 34 and 32 points, respectively, while shooting a cumulative 65.3 percent. A popular pick to slide in the standings due to injuries, Warren’s Indiana Pacers have flipped the script and are 3-0 in the bubble.

Welcome to Warren-sanity. First, he shredded Philadelphia’s sixth-ranked defense, exploding for a career-high 20 field goals. For an encore, Warren compiled 34 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, three steals and four blocks against the Washington Wizards, the first player to reach that stat line this season, per Basketball Reference tracking. On Tuesday, he delivered yet again, pouring in another 32 points on 13-for-17 shooting.

Warren has scored 119 points in three games. This is a hot streak that normally only belongs to Hall of Famers. And yet, Warren has never sniffed an All-Star Game. So how good is he? Is Warren a flash in the pan or is this the beginning of a Kawhi Leonard-type breakout? Let’s dive in and try to figure out what’s fluke and what’s for real.

 

While Warren is a known bucket-getter, a scoring spree of this magnitude has come out of nowhere. On Tuesday night, after being the story of the bubble, the Orlando Magic -- fighting for a non-Milwaukee matchup in the first round -- simply had no idea what to do with Warren. With Orlando’s defensive ace Jonathan Isaac lost to a torn ACL, the Magic assigned athletic marvel Aaron Gordon to Warren duties. It didn’t thaw Warren one bit.. Warren unleashed deep threes, seering basket cuts and soft floaters in the lane. By the time Warren went to the bench with 1:27 left in the first quarter, he’d scored 17 points in about 10 minutes of action, not missing a single shot from the floor or at the line. Indiana was up 40-18 and never looked back.

Before the bubble, Warren averaged 18.7 points per game, but he was a metronome in the purest sense. He had never scored at least 30 points in consecutive games in five-plus seasons in the NBA. His FiveThirtyEight list of statistical comps is a roll call of players who were borderline All-Stars at their peak -- names like Tim Thomas, Tobias Harris and Evan Fournier  -- but never got invited to the ball.

But there’s reason to believe the Pacers have something more than that in Warren. 

For starters, Warren’s scoring abilities aren’t new. The Durham native averaged 24.9 points per game at NC State, earning 2013-14 ACC Player of the Year honors and showing enough talent to be the No. 14 overall pick in the 2014 draft. But even then, Warren’s largest point total in any three games at the collegiate level was 107. He’s at 119 in the bubble entering Thursday night. 

So what unlocked this version of Warren -- that scores with the confidence and tools of Leonard and Durant? Is this another version of Linsanity?

Like Jeremy Lin, Warren has taken team adversity and flipped it into an opportunity. Linsanity only started when Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire were sidelined and the other three point guards couldn't run Mike D’Antoni’s offense. Necessity, it turns out, is the mother of invention. When Lin was inserted into the starting lineup as a last resort, the Knicks went on a seven-game winning streak, all without Anthony and Stoudemire. 

With Domantas Sabonis, Jeremy Lamb and Malcolm Brogdon sidelined by injuries, and Victor Oladipo basically playing on one leg, the situation was ripe for an ambitious Pacer to fill the void. Enter Warren. Like Lin’s 12-game run before the All-Star break in which he averaged 22.6 points and 8.7 rebounds in the Big Apple, Warren capitalized on the situation and he did it at a time when many players might have said, “eh, let’s pack it in for next season.”

 

Warren is one of 12 players to score at least 50 points in a game this season, but only the third to do it with a scoring average below 20 points per game, joining Houston’s Eric Gordon (14.5 points) and Brooklyn’s Caris LeVert (18.1). Warren’s sustainability is worth noting, especially when compared to those comparable players. Once a player drops 50, he instantly becomes the headline on the opponent’s scouting report, making encore performances harder to come by. In the game immediately following his 50-plus eruption, Gordon scored eight points on 2-of-10 shooting. LeVert scored 14 on 6-of-19 shooting. But Warren? He put up 34. And then another 32 just for good measure.

While the opportunities have helped, Warren’s also adding new elements to his game, particularly by expanding his range. A master of the mid-range area, the Warren has attempted 23 3-pointers in three games, matching his total for the entire month of February, in which he played nine games. 

Warren is a bit late to the 3-point party, but it’s better to be late than never. This is where Warren can realize his upside. Look at the careers of Brandon Ingram, Pascal Siakam and Chris Bosh. These are all mid-range mavens that literally took a step back, set up behind the arc and embraced the 3-point shot. 

Warren can unlock the same bag of tricks. The former Suns wing is shooting a toasty 48.7 percent on 2-point jumpers beyond 10 feet this season. Only C.J. McCollum, Chris Paul and Khris Middleton have been more efficient in that mid-range area, per Basketball-Reference. Those three marksmen have spent years terrorizing opponents from deep, with McCollum and Middleton competing in the 3-Point Contest at All-Star Weekend. 

Warren, on the other hand, used the 3-point shot only sparingly, entering the bubble averaging only three 3-point attempts per game, even though he was making a healthy 37.5 percent of them. The percentages were there, but the appetite wasn’t. 

If you’re looking for the next great 3-point shooter, this is the starting point. Find the guy who rules the mid-range game and convince him to move back a bit and get the extra point. Not only does it add more points to the team’s total, but it creates space for others. Now, when Warren parks himself beyond the arc, that’s one less help defender to collapse into the paint. Threes aren’t just good because they’re worth three points; they make 2s easier for others.

This is why Warren’s bubble performance doesn’t feel like a fluke. He was always a great shooter and a pure scorer. The question was whether he’d ever feel comfortable shooting from deep, and sometimes, a player just needs to be pushed to go there. Bosh wasn’t known as a stretch five until injuries and playoff urgency made it a necessity. In the same way, injuries to Sabonis, Brogdon, Lamb and Oladipo propelled Warren’s evolution.

 

Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard and general manager Chad Buchannan deserve credit for taking a chance on Warren when the Suns dumped him for essentially nothing (cash considerations) in a three-team deal involving the Miami Heat. At the time, Warren was only an insurance plan on unrestricted free agents Bojan Bogdanovich and Thaddeus Young, both of whom ended up getting richer deals elsewhere. 

Warren’s scoring has gotten the headlines, but it’s the rest of his game in Orlando that offers the most intriguing long-term potential. Warren’s been much more active defensively in the bubble, tallying seven blocks and six steals in three games. Here’s the last time he’s tallied 13 combined steals and blocks over a three-game span: Never.

The blocks are especially uncharacteristic. In a 14-game stretch before the New Year, Warren registered one block total. Because of the way he defends, some of these might register as steals. Rather than meet shooters at the mountaintop, Warren uses his nifty hands to strip a player’s shot on the way up ala Andre Iguodala. These are basically stocks -- a steal and block hybrid. Whatever you want to call it, it often gets the desired result, a turnover.

While Warren is unlikely to continue to score at this level, a more well-rounded game with consistent 3-point ability would make him one of the best bargains in the NBA. The Pacers are on the hook for just $11.7 million next season and $12.7 million in 2020-21 for Warren  -- less than what the Chicago Bulls are paying Young over the same timespan. Three games doesn’t make a star player in this league, but considering Warren was already an elite jump-shooter inside the arc, it’s not unrealistic to think he can become a Middleton clone, albeit with less playmaking ability.

I’ll admit that I didn’t see this coming, but perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised when a big wing finds himself at the age of 26. Middleton wasn’t an All-Star until he was in his age-27 season. Danny Granger, another former Pacers wing, made his first All-Star appearance at the age of 25. Siakam turned 26 in April. Warren could simply be a late bloomer.

So where does this development leave the Pacers? Ultimately, they need superstars to break into championship contender status. Sabonis and Oladipo have the potential to get there, if they can keep their leg injuries at bay. Warren’s sudden change in status could change their ceiling whenever the 2020-21 season happens, including as a potential trade asset when the next disgruntled superstar comes on the trade market. And if Oladipo struggles to regain his form after tearing his quad tendon, Pacers could hand the keys to Warren and save the cash elsewhere. 

The good news is Indiana has time. The Pacers’ loaded lineup -- with Brogdon and Oladipo in the backcourt and Warren alongside Sabonis and Myles Turner -- has only played in six games this season, but the returns are promising, outscoring opponents by 10.3 points every 100 possessions. If I’m the Pacers, I sit tight this fall and see what they can do together next season and then evaluate the trade market at the deadline. 

 

Meanwhile, Warren continues to have his own Linsanity moment inside the bubble. The only thing that could make this Disney run more magical would be a dream matchup against the team that dumped him, the Phoenix Suns. 

And wouldn’t you know on Thursday, the Pacers are playing the Suns. In January, Warren scored 25 points in a revenge game win against his former team, but a closer look at the box score shows that Warren took zero 3-pointers in that game. Something tells me Warren won’t ignore the long ball again this time. The Suns better be ready. 

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