T.J. Warren isn’t this, because this is like a little kid imagining his favorite player as a superhero. (Lingering disappointment that Vince Carter did not, in fact, average 83 points per game in 1999-2000.) There’s a mild unreality about the NBA’s restart—17-foot video boards behind the benches, the uncanny canned noise of an absent crowd—and Warren’s psychedelic scoring barrages amplify this dreamy quality. He’s not supposed to be burning this hot, not night after night. Guys like Warren go on a run, they drop a number that James Harden approaches a couple times per month, and then they go back to being good in broadly ignorable ways. They don’t follow up 53 with 34 and 32, and then go on to drain crunchtime runners and ridiculous threes in a tight win over the Lakers.
The thing is, as out of his mind as he’s been, Warren’s recent performances are a logical extension of what he’s become over the past couple seasons and what he’s been for considerably longer than that. The newly calibrated jumper is great, you’ve more or less got to have three-point range these days, but it’s like wearing the right clothes for the job. Warren went to The Gap and bought a few smart shirts of varying blues, slacks, and a tan belt. Anyone can do that. No, what differentiates him from his peers is that he scores in ways you’re not supposed to. He’s got midrange fadeaways and pull-ups, ugly-effective post moves, swooping crosscourt maneuvers that fall somewhere on the spectrum between hook shot and floater. You see him go right into the defender’s chest, or lean back only a little bit, not seeming to give himself enough space, and then he drains the attempt anyway. He’s simply got a knack for converting tough buckets. Through his first four years in the league, Warren took 55.5 percent of his shots from midrange and still shot 50 percent from the field. Now that he’s added to his game the 24-footer, the odd 30-footer, there are nights he ascends toward total uncheckability.
The I’ve always liked that guy phenomenon is widespread whenever anybody breaks out, but Warren has been genuinely admired by League Pass dorks since entering the league in 2014. (Draft night sentiment from Adi Joseph at USA Today: “this is a rock-solid pick,” from Ethan Rothstein at SBNation: “Warren is one of the best scorers in the draft.”) And the efficiency numbers have been constant, even improving, as the averages have climbed, but it’s tough to stand out on bad teams, compiling stats in the second halves of double-digit blowouts. It’s tougher still to gain legitimacy. You produce an imaginary product. But Warren can score; that’s for real. He did it in Phoenix and, for the past season, he’s been doing it for Indiana, proving he can put up points in games that matter, now glowing firework red in, if not the biggest games of his life, the most ardently watched. We’re all a little overexcited after the layoff. There are nights when the NBA feels like the only entertainment in existence, and T.J. Warren has been its star.
He came back to earth on Monday night, had a quiet 14 points on a poor shooting performance in a lopsided loss to Miami. That was bound to happen because, we’re pretty sure, Warren isn’t prime Blake Griffin. But he’s better than the lack of attention he’s gotten over the course of his career would suggest, much better than being curiously salary dumped by the Suns as they deemed him expendable last offseason. “It’s very disrespectful,” Warren said recently. “No player wants to be traded for cash.” It’s difficult to prove the haters wrong with the Pacers. They’re an eminently competent organization, but Indiana’s not a bright stage and the roster is populated almost entirely by charming yet unspectacular talents—bands whose records you own but never listen to, novels that get shortlisted for a couple awards and then fall out of fashion. The operation is extra medium. You chop vegetables to the Indiana game while you wait for the primetime matchups.
The restart has presented Warren with an unusual opportunity to transcend. You could say he’s seizing it, but nobody consciously scores 53 in their first competitive game in months; that is the cosmos moving through you. When Warren goes 9-for-12, 4-for-5, 5-for-8 from deep, it’s a reflection of the work he’s put in to make himself a decent three-point shooter and it’s the D-20 spitting out a high number. The rest of his extraordinary repertoire is less contingent, a truer expression of his strengths. There’s an NBA, why it existed just last decade, where Warren would be encouraged only to run the floor, operate out of the high post, feint toward the rim and pull up from 15 feet. The triples that have sent his scoring figures up into the stratosphere are a modern contrivance, good luck and the tactical revelation that it’s nice not to have your guards trying to maneuver around a bunch very tall men in the paint.
Which: cool. One of the most basic thrills of following sports is seeing very large numbers appear on the stat sheet, and Warren has recorded quite a few lately. If it takes drilling a bunch of threes to illuminate his bruising-beautiful style, if it takes the hyper-focused attention that’s bearing down on the NBA post restart, that’s a happy coincidence. Warren deserves a break, some overdue adulation. This preamble to what might be a profoundly loopy postseason is the perfect setting for a few unexpected protagonists to emerge. It’s T.J. Warren time, apparently. A perfectly strange and pleasing development.