All of T.J. Warren's nicknames over the years have had to do with offense. "Buckets," most commonly, but also "Look What I Found" for his knack for being in the right place at the right time around the rim to get up shots.
Not much consideration has been made to acknowledge his defense via nickname, an understandable slight. Warren has been primarily a scorer, for one. He played in Phoenix, for another. The Suns had four head coaches in his five years with them and the team was a defensive bottom-feeder in each one. Defense was what they were forced to kill time doing when they didn't have the ball.
But look what the Pacers have found: a wing defender who's capable of disengaging an opponent's weapon rather than just trying to outshoot him. Warren has gradually slipped into that role over the first nine games of the season, never more than in Friday's 112-106 victory over Detroit.
Starting the game assigned to Tony Snell but finishing it surgically attached to Luke Kennard, Warren was a major factor in the Pacers' fifth victory in their previous six games well beyond the 17 points he scored. Although Kennard scored 29 points, precious few of them came against Warren's defense.
That continued a steady progression for Warren, who came to the Pacers with a reputation for poor defense that is looking more and more like a bad rap given the circumstances.
"Just embracing that challenge every single night no matter who he guards," point guard Malcolm Brogdon said following Saturday's practice at St. Vincent Center. "That's something he wants to be elite at. That's going to be huge for us coming down the stretch and into the playoffs."
Here's another way of looking at it, courtesy of Warren's former AAU teammate and current coach, Trevor West:
"It's hard to play defense when you're 12-62 and the best player isn't even trying to play defense or passing the ball," he said, exaggerating somewhat to emphasize the situation Warren faced in Phoenix. "What people are seeing now is who T.J. actually is — a person who gets buckets on one end and locks people down at the other end.
"It's personal for him. He doesn't like getting scored on."
Warren has as many tools for defense as he does for scoring. He's 6-foot-8 and has long arms, quick feet and quick hands. One of the referees in Friday's game even complimented him on his ability to get his hands on the ball without fouling, a claim Warren validated throughout the game.
Warren began Friday's game defending Detroit forward Tony Snell while Brogdon opened on Kennard. It seemed a logical matchup. Kennard had dropped 30 points on the Pacers in the season-opener and was averaging 16.8 heading into that game. Brogdon was the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year as a senior at Virginia, shared the honor as a junior, and built a reputation for defense in his two seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Kennard, though, scored 14 points in the first quarter as the Pistons built a 15-point lead. Something had to change, and it did after Warren re-entered the game with 5:19 left in the second quarter and took over the defense of the Piston's shooting guard.
Here's how things transpired for Kennard from that point on while defended by Warren:
- He was forced to pass off on a driving attempt on Detroit's next possession, then was scored on by Warren at the offensive end.
- He missed a 3-pointer as Warren fought over a screen and defended the shot.
- He nearly had the ball stripped by Warren 30 feet from the basket, and then was bottled up in the lane and forced to pass.
- In the third quarter, he had his dribble deflected by Warren, chased it down in front of the Pacers bench and had to pass off.
- Moments later he hit a mid-range jumper after losing Warren on a screen, his first points since the first quarter.
- At 9:06 he was forced to give up the ball when Warren shut him off.
- At 8:03 he had the ball stripped by Warren again and had to foul to prevent the Pacers from getting a breakaway layup.
- He hit a 3-pointer off an offensive rebound at 6:26 after the Pacers defense became scrambled and Brogdon couldn't get out to him in time.
- He had the ball stripped by Warren 40 feet from the basket with 5:05 left in the fourth quarter. Warren barely saved the ball from going out of bounds in front of the scorer's table and converted a transition layup against Andre Drummond's defense.
- After making a 3-pointer with 4:20 left after Warren had switched off to defend Bruce Brown, Kennard missed a 3-pointer that was well-defended by Warren with 2:30 remaining.
- He either failed to get open for a pass or failed to get off a shot against Warren's defense the rest of the game, other than drawing a foul on a spin move to the basket and hitting two free throws with 49 seconds left.
Bottom line: just four of Kennard's points over the final 2 1/2 quarters came when he was defended by Warren.
Warren draws comparisons to Bojan Bogdanovic, who came to the Pacers two years ago with a reputation as one of the worst defensive small forwards in the NBA, but became a credible defender after rising to the demands of the coaching staff. Warren, though, appears to have more defensive potential than Bogdanovic because of his quicker hands and feet.
"We've seen this from guys coming from other systems," Pacers coach Nate McMillan said after Friday's game. "We expect them to play both ends of the floor. He's working to learn how we defend. I thought he did a really good job of working to make (Kennard) to catch, making him work to score."
Part of Warren's adjustment has been to speak up more often. Team defense requires communication, which is a challenge for shy and soft-spoken players.
"I'm naturally a quiet, reserved guy, but when I'm out there I get out of my comfort zone to help the team," Warren said.
The other part of his adjustment is simply focusing more on it. That's easier to do when your teammates are doing it and the coaches are demanding it.
"Scoring is easy; I'm not worried about scoring," he said. "I know it all starts on the defensive end.
He keeps this up, the nicknames will follow.
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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.
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