For TJ Warren, the most frustrating part of it all is the minutes restriction.
It’s a necessary precaution — a preservation method for a player fresh on the court after two straight seasons sidelined due to a stress fracture in his left foot.
The issue is — as it turns out — Warren is still really good at basketball. He thinks it’s easier to score now than it was before he got hurt. The game is less physical and lends itself to free-flowing scorers.
He had 20 off the bench, for example, and played in the Nets’ closing rotation over Ben Simmons in Friday’s loss to the Boston Celtics. He probably could have scored more if he played Kevin Durant’s normal load of 37 minutes.
“I feel like I’m doing a lot better than people thought I would be doing this early a month in,” he said after Saturday’s practice.
Instead, though, Warren played 28 minutes, which is on the higher end of his minutes restriction because head coach Jacque Vaughn has already denounced the idea of him playing 35 to 40.
That doesn’t mean Vaughn doesn’t want to, and Warren would be a willing participant in attempting to fully shoulder Durant’s load — if he and the team weren’t in lockstep with the plan.
The name of the game is preservation, and Warren is a microcosm of the fragility of a power-packed Nets roster that — as Durant’s second midseason MCL sprain shows — could be one tweaked ankle, or awkward landing, or freak accident away from a third wasted season in Brooklyn.
With Durant out and a roster with so many players managing injuries, the Nets need to lean on Warren — and Warren wants to be a rock for his team.
Leaning on him too much, however, could put his health at jeopardy, while not utilizing him enough could cost the team games they can’t afford to give away with Durant on the sidelines.
“My head’s in the place of not changing the long-term view for him,” Vaughn said. “I’ve told him this message. That’s my number one goal: that he’s healthy, hooping in the playoffs, showing his skills off to the rest of the world. That will be the guiding light.”
With the Nets’ superstar out, it’s easy to assume Warren as his successor.
Durant is 6-foot-10. Warren is 6-foot-8.
Both shoot over smaller defenders in the mid-range — though it must be noted Durant does so with legendary efficiency.
Both can shoot threes, take defenders off the dribble and score at the rim. Both have been described by teammates as underrated or under-appreciated defenders.
Warren even got shots up with Kyrie Irving on the northernmost half-court after Saturday’s practice. Traditionally, Durant and Irving occupy that court alone, though Irving shot with Seth Curry following the practice before the Celtics game.
In fact, the Warren signing was one of the biggest moves in an award-worthy off-season for general manager Sean Marks, right up there with balking at Durant’s trade request: adding Warren not only helps insulate the Nets from the struggles that crippled them when Durant was out a month-plus last season, but it also came on a team-friendly minimum contract.
Warren has, if anything, shown he’s still got it. Twice in his career, he flirted with averaging 20 points per game in a season. He had the notable 53-point game against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Orlando Bubble, averaged 26.9 points in those six make-up games then 20 points on above-average efficiency against the Heat in four playoff games.
Then the basketball world forgot about him.
The stress fracture was discovered four games into the first full NBA season after the COVID-19 pandemic. The surgery knocked him out the remainder of the 2020-21 season.
And improper healing in his left foot post-surgery kept him out the entire following year. Warren didn’t even make his Nets debut until 24 games into this season.
How his foot healed was a factor fully outside of his control. Preventing that foot from needing to heal again is on him.
And it’s on both Vaughn and the Nets’ player performance team to ensure they don’t push Warren beyond his capacity. He is averaging 10.5 points per game off the bench this season but his production is trending upwards, especially with the incoming spike in minutes with Durant out an extended period.
“Will I get tempted at times if he’s rolling? For sure. Every coach would be,” Vaughn said. “But for his longevity — and for the group — we’ll put him in a position to succeed the whole year.”
It’s all fun and games until you’re actually rolling — or you’re trying to establish some sort of scoring rhythm, but you know what’s coming.
Warren could hit five threes on the first five possessions after checking in — and he’d still know a teammate would soon be checking in to sub him out.
Warren has played over 30 minutes just once despite feeling like he can shoulder a bigger load. Part of it, of course, is that when Durant is healthy, there are only so many minutes to go around before you need the starters on the floor.
With Durant out, however, the itch is there. Warren knows he can make an impact in Durant’s absence, but he also knows what’s at stake.
“After being out for two years, you’ve just got to be mindful that it’s a marathon and you can’t get carried away each game, knowing that the playoffs/end of the season is where you want guys healthy and feeling their best,” he said. “And it can get frustrating sometimes trying to fight through the minutes restriction, but you’ve just gotta see the bigger picture, which is being healthy at the end of the season.”
So he’s had to make a change. Warren says on a stacked Nets roster, he’s trying to get in where he fits in. He’s trying to pick segments of the game to be aggressive scoring, but in the back of his mind, that sub is always coming.
“It’s not easy playing on a minutes restriction. You don’t want to get to thinking too much,” he said. “The clock is ticking. It’s like a countdown for you.”
The sub didn’t come at the end of the Celtics game. Vaughn staggered Warren’s minutes and kept him on the floor over the scoreless Ben Simmons.
And if Warren continues to play well, Vaughn will be faced with more tough decisions. Just how heavily can the team lean on Warren? Can he be a rock until the foundation returns?
It won’t be easy, but Warren is trying to stick to the plan. The game was already taken away from him once. He doesn’t want to risk it again.
Even if it means dealing with a frustrating minutes restriction.
“Just knowing that there’s a bigger goal, and me being healthy at the end of the year is that goal,” Warren said. “And so far so good.”