Breaking down what T.J. Warren brings to the Indiana Pacers

The Indiana Pacers new acquisition T.J. Warren brings a versatile scoring ability that should give his new team a boost offensively next season. In a deal that came as a surprise, Warren’s production eerily matches his predecessor in the starting lineup and he’ll have his first opportunity to play for a team that expects to win a lot of games.

“It makes me feel great,” Warren said of the Pacers making a deal for him. “I feel like every day matters here. Every day is taken seriously. I’m ready to contribute to that.”

After a five-year start to his career stuck in a perpetual rebuild in the desert with the Suns, it’s understandable why he feels that way.

For the Pacers, it was a trade offer they initially didn’t think was serious according to ESPN’s Amin Elhassan. All they gave up was cash and salary cap space and they received a capable scorer in Warren and the 32nd pick in the draft (which they flipped on draft night for three future second-round picks).

“We weren’t expecting that one,” Kevin Pritchard told Mark Montieth of Pacers.com of the Warren trade. “But when it came, we made the decision in five minutes. We knew it was the right thing.”

When he was first acquired, it seemed like the plan would be for Warren to potentially take over for Thad Young at power forward where he played 99% of his minutes with the Suns last season, but since his acquisition the look of the Pacers roster has changed dramatically: Indiana drafted center Goga Bitadze and said that Domantas Sabonis will start at the four alongside Myles Turner. Bojan Bogdanovic, who was said to be a top priority for Indiana to re-sign, ended up with a huge deal with the Utah Jazz after their initial target Nikola Mirotic decided to return to Spain.

“For me this summer came together in a huge way,” said Pritchard, who was finally able to cash in on the team’s carefully maintained cap flexibility. “Something we hoped for. When you look at the theme of what we wanted to accomplish, we wanted to get better on the offensive end.”

Adding Warren, Jeremy Lamb and Malcolm Brogdon all gave the Pacers more firepower on offense where they struggled without Victor Oladipo, especially in the playoffs.

So Warren will now slide into Bogdanovic’s vacant spot in the starting lineup and he still gives the Pacers the flexibility of going small at times as well. The two have strikingly similar stat lines from 2018-19:

  • Warren in 31.6 minutes per game: 18.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 22.7% usage rate, shooting line of 48.6/42.8/81.5 (FG%, 3PT%, FT%)
  • Bogdanovic in 31.8 minutes per game: 18.0 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.9 steals, 22.4% usage rate, shooting line of 49.7/42.5/80.7

The big difference is that Bogdanovic is almost always available to play and Warren has struggled to stay healthy so far in his career. He missed nearly half the season last year with a bone bruise on his ankle and has never played more than 66 games in his five seasons. Bogdanovic, on the other hand, has never played less than 78 games over the same amount of time.

Warren is still only 25 and considerably cheaper than Bogdanovic. So if the Pacers training staff can keep him healthy and he can keep up his production on the court, Indiana should have a bargain.

While their statistics are nearly identical, the way both players score is different. Before this past year, Warren did not have the ability to shoot from beyond the arc, making just 28% of 279 career attempts. Former Phoenix Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov thought it was just something he had never needed to learn until getting to the NBA.

“I think the main thing, he understood how important it is in this modern basketball,” Kokoskov told The Athletic’s Bob Young. “Obviously, he was a talented and powerful driver. The teams he played on in the past, high school, college, he was such a dominant driver he can break the paint and turn the corner. He didn’t have to develop that (long-range) part, so it was just sitting over there in some drawer waiting for him to discover.”

It was such a vast improvement that he was getting some mention as a possible candidate for the Most Improved Player award after taking an estimated 42,000 shots in the offseason before the injury.

Most of his opportunities as a shooter came in spot-up situations, where he scored 1.05  points per possession (56th percentile) on 5.2 chances per game via Synergy’s tracking data, but he showed some ability to come off screens as well. Kokoskov had a creative set to get Warren open in the corner.

Caitlin Cooper of Indy Cornrows dove into this play in more detail here.

While Warren had 0.9 possessions per game coming off screens, he performed well in his limited chances (Synergy: 1.08 ppp, 78th percentile). While you probably won’t see Nate McMillan running floppy sets for his new forward, getting him coming off a screen is another way the Pacers could potentially use his new skill. With Indiana starting the pair of young bigs together in Turner and Sabonis, they’ll desperately need his shooting to help the spacing of the starting lineup.

shotchart (4)

He took by far the fewest amount of mid-range attempts in his career last season. Only about five percent of his shots were from 16 feet to the 3-point line after taking 16% of his shots from that long-two distance in each of the previous three seasons per Basketball Reference. Under the old-school McMillan, it wouldn’t be surprising to that number go back up some but hopefully the majority of his jumpers come from behind the line.

There’s no guarantee that Warren’s shooting will stay at that high of a percentage but you shouldn’t expect a dramatic drop off to his previous percentages either. His 4.2 attempts per game is a decent sample size over half of a season and this wasn’t just some contract year improvement; Warren added the 3-pointer to his game after he already got his deal extended for four years and $50 million. There’s no reason to think he’ll quit working at it.

“It’s a testament to the work I put in,” Warren told Suns.com of his improved shot. “I really wanted to lock-in and really focus on it. Seeing where the league is going, just wanted to challenge myself and prove to myself that if I put my mind to it, I can do it.”

Outside of his jumper, Warren has long been known for his ability to consistently score with his wide array of impressive, yet unorthodox mix of floaters and runners. He has a very unique, unconventional tool kit in today’s NBA for getting buckets.

Kokoskov called him a “talented and powerful driver” and “instant offense.” A close teammate last season, Jamal Crawford, told The Athletic that he wasn’t one of those players where he was only putting up numbers because he was on a bad team.

“He’s a bonafide scorer, it’s legit,” Crawford said. “He’s not one of those guys. … I’ve been on teams and seen teams where you have really good scorers on bad teams. He’s a guy you could put anywhere and he’d find a way. He’s one of the most underrated players in the league, too. People don’t talk about that because we don’t win that much, but he will definitely get his chance for people see him at some point.”

The Pacers are certainly hoping that’s the case.

Warren is terrific at sizing the defense up quickly then decisively make his move when he gets the ball. Sometimes he even gets his momentum started for the drive before he’s received the pass.

He’ll often take a brief moment on the catch to pick his path to the basket and then he’s attacking.

Because he’s able to create a look quickly, he’s an ideal end-of-the-shot-clock guy that can get off a decent attempt in a few seconds and spoil an opposing defensive possession. He didn’t get a ton of straight isolation plays with Phoenix but he did well in those attempts (Synergy: 1 possession per game, 1.05 ppp, 84th percentile). Look at how far from the rim he is here with five seconds left on the shot clock.

A lot of his driving game comes as the ball handler in the pick and roll where he averaged 2.7 chances per game scoring 1.02 ppp per Synergy (91st percentile). Among players with at least two possessions per game in this playtype and 40 games played, Warren was the 5th-most efficient at scoring in these scenarios. He often likes to deny the pick and cross over to his left to set up one of his patented shots.

While Warren is great at creating his own shot and makes his moves with urgency, he hasn’t shown the ability to create for others to this point in his career. Something the Pacers may be lacking while Oladipo remains out.

Averaging just 1.5 assists, he only passes about once every eight drives (12.6%, lowest in the league) which isn’t even half as often as Bogdanovic (27.6%), who also isn’t much of a passer when attacking the basket (another shockingly similar stat: they each averaged 6.8 drives per game). Once he gets started downhill, he’s probably going to end up shooting it, even if it’s a tough floater while double teamed.

Per Cleaning the Glass, his assist-to-usage ratio of 0.35 was in the 12th percentile last season among forwards. The plus side of this lack of passing is that he rarely turns the ball over (89th percentile or above in TO% at his position each of the last four seasons per CTG) and he does manage to score at a high rate (75th percentile in points per shot attempt per CTG).

Outside of his ability to get going toward the basket, he does well at moving without the ball and making himself available for a pass. He has good instincts for when to make a cut (more examples here). This may lead to some good chemistry with Sabonis, who is adept at hitting his teammates when they slice to the basket.

Kokoskov believed that with his youth he could still improve on weaker areas like passing and defense.

“He’s still a young player who is working on his game and can get better defensively,” Kokoskov told The Athletic. “And when you have the ability to score, then you have the ability to make the simple play for other people. So it’s all the stuff he’s getting better (at) but scoring is the number one thing that we all know he’s capable of.”

Defensively, the Pacers will be hoping for a sharp improvement by both being in their system and being coached by Dan Burke. They can look at Bogdanovic as an example of someone coming to Indiana and being more serviceable than he was in previous stops in his career.

The year before Bogey was with the Pacers, he was ranked 63rd out of 64 small forwards in ESPN’s DRPM at -3.42. In his first season with Indiana, Bogdanovic jumped up to 52nd out of 77 small forwards at -0.72. Warren had been ranked near the bottom in the same metric in both of those seasons but made a similar jump as his predecessor last season at 65th of 97 small forwards at -0.71. So, perhaps he’s already starting to improve and being on a winning team may help motivate more effort on defense as well.

Warren’s DPIPM from Basketball Index was slightly better (yet similar once again) to Bogdanovic’s in 2018-19 (-1.0, -1.1). If the Pacers could manage to put one of the league’s best defenses on the court last year, Warren’s presence alone shouldn’t prevent that from happening again this season (though losing two of their best defenders in Young and Cory Joseph won’t help). He does occasionally show a knack for causing turnovers and starting a fastbreak.

Off the floor, Warren is known as a quiet guy that doesn’t enjoy talking to the media. Former Pacers power forward David West has been his mentor since he was 10 years old.

 

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