'When I'm Not Playing, Something Is Wrong'

T.J. Warren has long been underestimated, but thanks to a hoops habit that had him playing pickup even while in the NBA, he's become the bubble's breakout star, as well as Jimmy Butler's newest foil.
photo of Ric BucherRic Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterAugust 14, 2020

T.J. Warren is as prolific at scoring as he is reticent talking about how he does it.

That has made it a challenge to explain how someone whom the Indiana Pacers acquired for cash considerations last summer set the NBA bubble ablaze by averaging 34.8 points on 60.5 percent shooting over a five-game stretch. Or why the barrage didn't continue against the Miami Heat on Monday in an opportunity to seek revenge against Jimmy Butler, who called Warren "trash" and "soft" and "not in my fucking league" in January after the two clashed in a 14-point Heat win.

But for someone who isn't particularly active on social media and resolutely avoids any sort of self-promotion, Warren's Twitter page is littered with answers. Or at least clues.

The banner: the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt. The full handle: TonyWarrenJr. The avatar: T.J. and former NBA forward David West in Raleigh-Durham pro-am jerseys. The bio: Old Soul. Location: In a gym near you.

The catch is, you have to know Warren to understand why all of that speaks for him. As the image of the famed Egyptian statue suggests, he's a guy who guards his secrets.

"You can't really control how others may feel or how they might paint pictures of you," he says. "But you've got to understand if you're true to yourself and believe in yourself, that's all that matters." 

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His father, Tony Warren Sr., preceded him as a star at North Carolina State and honed not only his son's fundamentals but his principles. Even now, he's still imparting wisdom to his son, as was evident in T.J.'s approach to Monday's rematch against Butler and the Heat. Tony Sr. wanted to make sure his son kept his focus on winning the game, not the war of words.

"We don't get caught up in that," Tony Sr. said. "I told him, 'Just play your game, play for the team.' Don't get caught up in that other stuff with Butler and you. ... Jimmy does that to everybody. ... He tries to get under people's skin. Throw them off their game. He was just trying to get inside T.J.'s head.

"I had guys try to do that to me all the time."

Though Warren struggled, the extra attention Miami paid him indicated just how seriously the league's bubble teams are taking him now. The Heat trapped the ball out of his hands as soon as he crossed midcourt and gave up layups to other Pacers driving to the basket rather than leave Warren open on the perimeter.

"That was new," Warren says. "But there are new challenges in all aspects of life, and you can't get caught up in the moment. You just have to clear your mind and play."

If that sounds philosophical, understand this: Getting points has always come easy to Warren, but he's the rare prolific scorer with a conscience. When he first started playing, he had to be convinced that the team's best option almost every possession was him shooting the ball.

"He didn't want to be labeled a ball hog," Tony Sr. says. "I said, 'T.J., it's not about being a ball hog. When they're going in, it's not shooting too much.' He always had a knack for putting the ball in the basket."

T.J, Warren's emergence as one of the Pacers' offensive leaders prompted the Heat to gear their defense toward getting the ball out of his hands in their first meeting in the NBA restart bubble.
T.J, Warren's emergence as one of the Pacers' offensive leaders prompted the Heat to gear their defense toward getting the ball out of his hands in their first meeting in the NBA restart bubble.Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

If Warren is reluctant to talk about that knack, though, it's because of something else Tony Sr. instilled in him.

"I always told T.J. from an early age, 'Don't ever talk about yourself. Put the team first. It ain't ever about you. It's about the team,'" he said. "A lot of guys in the league now only talk about themselves. What they do best. They put themselves above the team. I didn't want him to be that kind of player."

T.J.'s faith in his father's counsel comes from a lifetime of watching him practice what he now preaches. His earliest memories are of going to pro-ams to watch Tony Sr. play in the Raleigh-Durham area where they lived.

"Seeing the reaction to him at those summer-league games and how much respect he got from the community has always stuck with me," Warren says. "I want to follow in his footsteps. When I go back to Raleigh, I want to be known for showing the way for the next generation and impacting the whole community in a positive way. That's what I want to be known for as I get older."

However, Tony Sr. realized that the basketball universe had changed since his playing days and searched for someone who had a more current road map for success to share with his son. He found that someone in David West—a power forward for the New Orleans Hornets at the timethrough West's older brother, Dwayne, who coached Raleigh's Garner Road Basketball Club. The two recognized T.J.'s talent early, while Tony Sr. and T.J. recognized the chance to be mentored by an NBA player.

"My dad didn't hand me over; he just understood the resources they had as a crew," Warren says. "D-West, having played at every level in this new era, was like my mentor. I still had my father, of course, and I'm going to listen to him, regardless of anybody, first and foremost. But D-West being around these GMs and scouts and players, it's kind of like a new era, and I just trusted him. To this day, D-West and I communicate daily, and he hasn't steered me wrong one time."

For West, at least part of the attraction was cultivating a kid who was better than he realized.

"He's always been a quiet kid," West says. "When he was young, he was real unassuming, so you couldn't tell he was the best player on the team. Sometimes guys carry that with them. But with him, it wasn't evident. And then once he'd start to play, you'd be, like, 'Oh, wow.' Dominant scorer. He shot mid-range jumpers and floaters. Not many young guys play like that. But he set himself apart playing that way. He was a shotmaker."

Warren credits a conversation with West at an AAU national tournament incoincidentallyOrlando as a turning point in his career. The Garner Road team had just lost, and a grassroots talent scout who had a player ranking service walked by and pointed to another player on the team.

"If you get some guys around him, this group will be all right," the scout said.

That alarmed West. He had Warren take a seat in the bleachers and told him, "This guy didn't even recognize you as the best guy on the team. You have an opportunity to be really good. Don't blow an opportunity by not showing up even one game. This guy will see you again. You just have to take advantage."

Former NBA veteran David West has been mentoring Warren since the two met during Warren's AAU tenure near Raleigh, North Carolina.
Former NBA veteran David West has been mentoring Warren since the two met during Warren's AAU tenure near Raleigh, North Carolina.Michael Reaves/Getty Images

A year later, Garner Road won that same tournament in the 15-year-old division.

"That's where it changed for me," Warren says of the talk with West in the stands. "I can't remember what happened during the game. It's been so long. I just know we lost. But it put things into perspective and changed how I viewed the game, understanding how much hard work and dedication you have to put in and be about your business no matter what the circumstances. Me being so young, I didn't really understand all of it, but as I got deeper into my career, as I got older and played with new teams and new players, it reminded me, 'Oh, this is what David was talking about.' It prepared me for my future."

Warren's early lack of aggression did not stem from a lack of confidence, which he made clear when the likes of North Carolina, Kentucky and Florida recruited him. Tony Sr. would've been fine with T.J. becoming a Tar Heel, but on his visit, head coach Roy Williams told T.J. he wanted him to play power forward because "there aren't any 4s who can check you." Warren was resolute about playing small forward. "There aren't any 3s who can check me, either," he told Williams.

Warren's mid-range game isn't the only old-school element to him (Hence the "old soul" bio.) There was nothing he liked better as a kid than hanging out with his grandfather, Ciscero Warren, who was once a lefty pitcher for the Homestead Grays in the Negro Leagues. (Ciscero died in 2009.) T.J. also has been fascinated by vintage cars ever since he rode in his dad's baby-blue two-door Thunderbird as a kid.

"It was clean, man," he says.

The current jewel in Warren's garage is a 1972 Chevelle SS, but he's on the hunt for a '63 Chevy Impala. And if he's driving, chances are he's bumping old-school tunes as well, whether that be old R&B or early Jay-Z or Nas.

"My pop and my uncles put me on that game early," Warren says. "I grew up on that type of energy, and it just stuck with me."

Now, about that location: In a gym near you. Plenty of guys claim to be gym rats, but they don't have the receipts Warren has.

When he was at North Carolina State, he'd routinely go find pickup games after Wolfpack practices. On a few occasions, he ran in some 5-on-5s before a game. When he was a freshman, he found himself with hours to kill before facing the rival Tar Heels for the first time. So he headed over to a gym called Hoops City U near the Raleigh-Durham airport and got in several pick-up games.

"Guys would be like, 'Yo, T, you guys play UNC in, like, 5-6 hours," Warren recalls, laughing. "I'm like, 'Man, I'm just trying to work on my game. I know it's a big game, but...'"

Warren scored 19 points in 27 minutes off the bench. The 'Pack won 91-83.

"I feel like when I'm not playing basketball, something is wrong, and I've always been like that," he says. "It's my safe place. It keeps me sane."

Warren was so addicted to playing basketball that he fit in a few pickup games hours before he helped N.C. State beat North Carolina in their first meeting of his freshman season.
Warren was so addicted to playing basketball that he fit in a few pickup games hours before he helped N.C. State beat North Carolina in their first meeting of his freshman season.Grant Halverson/Getty Images

That's why he continued the habit after the Phoenix Suns drafted him in 2014, as much to burn off frustration as anything else. Seeing a slew of small forwardsJabari Parker, Doug McDermott and Dario Sarictaken ahead of him lit his fuse before he even arrived in the desert.

It didn't take long for Warren to resent the team that took him as much as those that didn't.

For someone raised in a stable basketball environment by Tony Sr. and the Wests, the franchise's carousel of coachesfour in his five seasonsbothered him. As did its subsequent decisions to draft more scoring forwards in Dragan Bender (No. 4 in 2016) and Josh Jackson (No. 4 in 2017).

"Warranted or not, he took a chip there," West says. "Then he never thought Phoenix respected him as the caliber of player he was. ... He felt like they were drafting guys at his position. One of the coaches came in and said he was going to be a bench player. He had some incidents that just didn't fit him."

The Suns moved him to the Pacers last July as part of a three-team deal that included the Heat, essentially to create salary-cap room to sign point guard Ricky Rubio. It wasn't going home, but it was pretty close. Tony Sr. and Pacers head coach Nate McMillan are both from the south side of Raleigh and are NC State alums.

"That was just luck," Tony Sr. says. "Indiana reminds me of Raleigh, how laid-back it is. And Nate's a good friend of mine. When I heard he was going to Indiana, I was thrilled. He would finally get coached."

West also knew the organization intimately, having played four seasons for the Pacers, the last one of which was Warren's rookie year with the Suns. He was constantly talking about Warren to anyone there who would listen.

"When T.J. was in college, I talked about him every day, because I just knew he would eventually be an NBA player," West says. "The trainers in Indy knew him, and they're still there. So I'm sure when he became available, that had a little something to do with it."

As predicted, Warren got off to a strong start, in part because the Pacers needed scoring help with Victor Oladipo recovering from a torn quadriceps tendon that he suffered in January 2019.

"It's crazy how it worked out," Warren says. "It was an automatic click from day one. They gave me a great opportunity. I feel like I stepped up and played very well with the opportunity given. There's a lot more work to be done, but we're headed in the right direction, for sure."

Though Oladipo isn't quite his former explosive self, his return has forced teams to guard him and persuaded the Pacers to distribute his offensive workload. Combined with Domantas Sabonis' departure from the bubble with plantar fasciitis, Warren has gone from averaging 14.2 field-goal attempts per game pre-bubble to 21.3 inside of it. The increase has largely come from beyond the arc, where he's taken seven shots per game, more than double his pre-bubble average.

That's no accident. During the league's four-and-a-half-month shutdown due to the coronavirus, Warren rode a mountain bike on a regular 17-mile loop with his dad on the tobacco trails of home and used his key to the NC State gym to get up some 500 threes on days when COVID-19 protocol allowed, Tony Sr. says.

"During the pandemic, he never stopped getting after it," West says. "That's all I'll say. We made sure he'd be ready to go."

And he was, up until sitting out Wednesday's win over the Rockets because of his own issues with plantar fasciitis. He is expected to be available when the playoffs start next week against the Heat.

Rest assured, just because he didn't force the issue Monday doesn't mean he will forget Butler's remarks.

"T.J. is never going to be a guy that lets you know what's going on, but he still carries grudges from high school," West says. "People mistake his quiet or not asserting himself vocally as a sign that he's out of his element, but it's not that. He's highly aware of everything. And he's always prepared for his element."

Warren would not be the first player whose reserve might be mistaken for being soft. West, who was known as one of the most fierce and physical players in his day, smiled as he recalled the slight.

"If you take people at face value and what your perception of them is," he says, "sometimes you just guess wrong."

Warren's success in the bubble has him feeling as though he has come full circle.

"You have to stay hungry and motivated, and this is the big one right here: staying in love with the game," he says. "Before I played for accolades and the money and the finances, I played for the love of it. That's what separates me from a lot of peoplemy love for this game. I've had years where the politics could make it not fun. But that's part of life, not just basketball. Once you understand that, you'll be fine."

He could have said, "Once you understand that about me, you'll be fine." But that would've been telling you something about himself, and that's not the Warren way. 

He's merely going to show you. It's up to you to figure it out.

A Sphinx would have it no other way.

   

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @RicBucher.

Bucher hosts the podcast Bucher and Friends with NFL veteran Will Blackmon and former NBA center Ryan Hollins, available on iTunes.