When the trade was announced last July, Pacers athletic trainer Dr. Josh Corbeil fired off a text to David West about the new acquisition.
"I swear I've known about that kid for 10 years," it read.
It was more like eight if we're going to nit-pick, but it probably seemed like a decade to Corbeil. Throughout his four seasons with the Pacers, during all those hours in the training room getting an ankle wrapped or receiving treatment for this sprain or that strain, West was constantly hyping this young kid coming up through his AAU program in North Carolina.
A kid West just knew was going to be a pro from the first day he saw him as a 10-year-old.
A kid West still believes has a deep reservoir of untapped talent that, if extracted, will make him an NBA All-Star.
That's how far West's back relationship with T.J. Warren goes. And that's how highly West thinks of Warren's future.
"All-Star caliber player," West says without hesitation.
West could be accused of bias, but BS is not his nature. Those close to him during his run with the Pacers, beginning with the 2011-12 season, regard him as one of the most mature players ever to wear the uniform. "Adult in the room" became a local cliché during that time, and he was the media's go-to guy in the locker room for honest analysis. Besides, he hyped none of his other Garner Road AAU players in Raleigh. Just T.J. Warren.
"When he was here, he always talked about this kid on his AAU team, and how much he loved him and how he was going to be a player in the NBA," Corbeil recalls. "He would say, 'Just watch! Remember the name!' He talked about him his whole time here."
West first laid eyes on Warren when Warren was a 10-year-old playing for a team in Greensboro. He thought then Warren was destined for the NBA because "there was just something about the way he played." Warren voluntarily joined Garner Road along with a teammate the following year to stay closer to home, and West has been in near-constant communication with him ever since.
To say they are close sells short the relationship. The word "family" comes up a lot, from various perspectives. West and Warren still talk on the phone nearly every day, and Warren corrected his shooting form by working with West's nephew, Trevor, two summers ago. Pacers coach Nate McMillan figures into the mix as well. He attended the same high school in Raleigh as Warren's father, Tony, and played at NC State just as Tony and T.J. did.
West, McMillan, and the Warrens all live within about a 15-mintue drive of one another in the Raleigh area. West and Warren have played some pickup games together in the area, and both lent their time and likeness to a book drive recently. McMillan watched them work out together a couple of times last summer after the trade.
It's a tight circle, to say the least, which is one of the reasons Warren's arrival to the Pacers has a meant-to-be aura about it.
He was happy to join them, given West's endorsement.
"He's real familiar with this city, this organization and he's excited that I'm part of it," Warren said. "He tells me it's a first-class organization and that the city loves their basketball."
The Pacers were equally happy to land Warren, and West's endorsement also played a role in that reaction. He wasn't consulted on the trade and didn't know about it before Warren did as Warren once believed, but his word and involvement still carry weight around the franchise.
"I can't think of a better guy for T.J. to work with than David West," McMillan said. "David was huge influence on T.J. and his game and how he plays."
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Should West's analysis turn out to be accurate and his enthusiasm deserved, taking Warren off Phoenix's hands along with a second-round draft pick by giving up only that vague asset known as "cash considerations" could turn out to be one of the best trades in the history of the Pacers' franchise.
The tumultuous Suns, who employed four head coaches in Warren's five seasons there and will have another new one this season, wanted to dump salary and clear more playing time for younger players. Warren, though, just turned 26 in September, and West believes he's ready to take another step forward now that he has a chance to play in a more stable organization and on what's likely to be a winning team.
Warren averaged 18 points last season and 19.6 the previous season. He has a career field goal percentage of .497 and hit 43 percent of his 3-pointers last season. Continue to bump up that free throw percentage from last season's career-high .815 level and he could join the vaunted 50/40/90 club of shooters. Only eight players in league history are members, including Malcolm Brogdon who qualified last season with Milwaukee. Reggie Miller is the only Pacer to have done so.
He's more than a shooter, however. He's also a scorer. He can create shots and has a knack for being in the right place at the right time to get a basket. He says he only nickname is "Buckets," but one AAU coach dubbed him "Look What I Found." Because he kept coming up with baskets without plays being run for him.
"He's going to have a breakout year if he can stay healthy," West said, mindful of the fact Warren hasn't played more than 65 games in his five NBA seasons. "I know he's in good hands with Josh and Carl (Easton, associate athletic trainer) and (sports performance director Shawn) Windle.
"If the stars align the way they're supposed to he's going to have a breakout year."
West's tenure in Indianapolis which included trips to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and 2014. But when he left after the 2014-15 season, turning down the option on the final year of his contract and taking a pay cut of more than $10 million to play for San Antonio it left the impression to outsiders that he didn't respect the Pacers' front office.
West's decision to leave, however, was based on his lack of desire, at age 34, to participate in a rebuilding project forced by Paul George's broken leg and Roy Hibbert's fall from grace and his desire to experience the Spurs' legendary culture, one he had admired even before entering the NBA in 2003. The reality is that he continued to hold Indianapolis and the Pacers in high regard and considers the city and the franchise to be the perfect match for Warren's budding career.
"Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah," West confirmed. "I've made it clear about my time there. I enjoyed my time there. I'm a fan of the franchise. My decision was a personal decision. He knows that.
"I was telling him this is the best possible situation you could have possibly hoped for. The basketball, the structure, knowing the environment there and the players who are going to bring out the best for him. It's the structure he needs to thrive. He's one of the more talented and versatile scorers we have in the league now."
Thriving for Warren will require maintaining his 3-point percentage of last season. That's where Trevor West comes in. Warren and Trevor, both 26 years old, were AAU teammates and have been "best friends" for several years, practically living together at times. When Warren's 3-point percentage dropped to .222 two seasons ago he got with Trevor to work it out over the summer.
Trevor, who was a starter for 3 1/2 seasons at Averett University in Danville, Va., adjusted Warren's form by taking the hip twist out of his motion, and claims to have utilized some "magic tricks" that brought improvement.
Mostly, though, the two got in the gym to "rep it out." Trevor says he had Warren taking 600-700 shots per day within a two-hour window for five or six days a week, "until his arm was about to fall off." That not only ingrained a better form but sharpened Warren's focus during games.
"His concentration level really improved," Trevor West said. "That's what I've seen change with his shooting. He's locked in. He doesn't take his eyes off the rim. That's the mark of a shooter to me."
The other "thriving" component for Warren will be defense. He comes with a reputation for being casual about it, much as Bojan Bogdanovic did when joining the Pacers two years ago. Warren, though, insists he is willing, and seemed to back that up with his effort in the preseason. In fact, he sounds offended when questioned on the subject.
In fairness, it might be pointed out he was playing out of position at the "four" spot last season. Trevor West, for one, considers Warren much close to a "two" than a "four." The Suns' revolving coaches' carousel didn't help, either. McMillan and assistant coach Dan Burke have a track record of insisting on defense, and Warren doesn't sound as if he plans to rebel.
"I feel like I'm a good defender," he said. "I just want to be able to showcase that on the big stage.
"These guys communicate. It gives me more confidence when guys are talking behind me. Everybody has to be on a string defensively and communicate. That's what the great teams do."
If he falls short, he'll be hearing about it not only from coaches and teammates, but over the phone from West.
"We talked about that for three straight days," West said. "I told him they're going to make you play defense and you need to play defense. He will defend."
There's another crucial family member in this story. Not virtual family, but literal. Warren's father, Tony, averaged 9.3 points over four seasons at NC State and was an eighth-round draft pick of Chicago in 1979. He didn't make the Bulls' roster, but still was accomplished enough to warrant directing his son's development.
He did for a while, but later turned over the responsibility to the Wests. Some fathers, even those who didn't have a meaningful career of their own, would pridefully refuse to do that, but Tony saw the benefit of letting an established NBA player take charge. Not just of his basketball career, but his life outside of the game as well. West's influence extends beyond basketball. He counsels Warren on life issues, nature, "just different stuff that gets the mind going," according to Warren.
"My dad understood D West played at the highest level," Warren said. "He's seen a lot and he's somebody you can trust. They coexist very well."
"Tony said, 'You all can help him? Then help him!'" West recalled. "Tony was tough on him about it. He told T.J., 'They tell you to do something, you've got to do it!'
"Even when he was young, I could yell at him and get him going. His family has let me have that role and it's continued on."
Given West's direction and endorsement, and given the opportunity that awaits him as a starter on a promising team, Warren could be on the cusp of something special. Roles and chemistry must be worked out on the fly, particularly after Victor Oladipo returns, but he's shown the potential to be a major offensive threat. He was the Pacers' leading scorer in the preseason, averaging 13.8 points in 22 minutes. In the only game in which he played starter minutes, the first game in India on Oct. 4, he scored 30 points while hitting 11-of-16 field goal attempts, including 5-of-6 3-pointers. He also hit a 3-pointer off an inbound pass that forced overtime.
Josh Corbeil sent another text to David West following that game: "This kid's pretty good!"
West replied: "Yeah, since he was 11."
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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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