T.J. Warren didn’t let the doubt overtake him, even when doubt seemed like all everyone else had. As he underwent one foot surgery and then another, he knew he’d get back to the court someday.
But two years is a long time, especially in the NBA, and while he clawed his way through a painstaking recovery, he took stock, too. He even did it Friday as he prepared to play in his first game since December 2020.
“One day, the ball is going to stop bouncing,” Warren said before the Nets took on the Raptors. “To be away from the game that you’ve been doing for 20-plus years and for it to be taken away from you, it’s definitely an eye-opener . . . It puts things in perspective.”
Warren checked in with 4:14 left in the first quarter to loud applause from the Barclays Center crowd and hit a midrange jumper less than a minute later. He totaled 10 points and shot 5-for-11 in 17 minutes of the Nets' 114-105 victory.
It was clear Friday that for Warren, just suiting up was an achievement. His back-to-back surgeries had recovery times of four to six months apiece, and he spent the first part of this season slowly building up to this moment.
Appropriately, Warren’s reintroduction will keep in mind his long layoff, coach Jacque Vaughn said.
“That’s a long time to come back and play and expect to play at a high level, and I think that’s why we have to be careful in expectations and just have them be realistic and see where it leads us,” Vaughn said before the game. “[Is he] going to play to the best that we’ve seen him tonight? No. But if he can play with some excitement, some joy, that will be good enough. We’ll keep it simple — real simple for him.”
Still, there’s a lot of promise there, and the Nets could use his skill set. Ben Simmons and Yuta Watanabe are out for the foreseeable future, and Warren, at his best, is a devastating midrange threat who can score in transition and has become a larger perimeter presence as he’s matured. At 6-8, he gives the Nets size, and he might be able to spell Kevin Durant, who entered Friday averaging 36.7 minutes per game.
Warren averaged 19.8 points in 2019-20, his last full season, and at 28, he likely still has plenty of basketball left. General manager Sean Marks got him for the one-year veteran minimum, making him a no-risk, high-reward investment for a team that’s trying to add dimension to an offense that has relied so heavily on Durant and Kyrie Irving and lost Simmons just as he was starting to look like the Simmons of old.
“I think overall, just the physical, bigger body that you can put out there,” Vaughn said of integrating Warren. “That’s the immediate piece. We can couple him with bigger lineups or smaller lineups, so that really helps — his ability to just score the basketball. He’s a scorer.”
But synergy will take time, especially because Warren’s previous shootaround was the only time he’s ever played with this team. Add to that: Chemistry hasn’t come easy for the Nets in the early going — at least partially because of an early coaching change, having to navigate a revolving door of players returning from lengthy injuries, and Irving’s suspension. The communication has been better of late, though, and the Nets entered Friday having won three straight — their longest winning streak this season.
“I know it’s going to be a process,” Warren said. “I mean, anybody you talk to coming back from a long layoff, it definitely takes time. But like I said before, I love to hoop, so I played basketball all the time before the injury, obviously. But it’s just like riding a bike for me to just get my rhythm, my timing, and just understand ‘OK, it’s really real.’ Just get past that part.”
But as much as basketball is second nature, Friday’s emotions were something completely new. Warren said he spoke to his mother a lot in the days leading up to it and that she helped keep him steady. He worked a lot on his mental health during his layoff, and he exuded gratitude.
“It’s surreal,” he said. “It’s been a long process, a very long one. And to be able to get to today means a lot, so I’m just super-excited to beat all the obstacles, all the uncertainty and unknowns. But it feels good to get to this point.”