It was a long and winding road back to the hardwood for Brooklyn Nets forward TJ Warren.
After his breakout bubble performance drew league-wide praise, Warren was sidelined for two seasons by a stress fracture in his left foot. After 703 days of rehab, the newly-signed Net made his way to the scorer’s table to a standing ovation from the Brooklyn crowd.
“It almost felt like a dream,” Warren said of the moment. “Just as soon as I checked in it kind of hit me like this is real.”
Checking in for the first time in 703 days 🙌
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) December 3, 2022
The insertion of Warren’s high-level bench scoring and 6’8″ defensive frame has been highly-anticipated throughout Brooklyn’s erratic open to the season. And it didn’t take long for the forward to validate the hype.
On his second possession upon checking in, the ball made its way to the 29-year-old in the corner off an extra pass. Warren pump-faked and watched the defender fly by before taking a calm dribble into his patented mid-range pull-up.
Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn said he was interested to see Warren’s first shot after such an extended layoff.
“What was it gonna look like? How long, how short was it gonna be? Was it gonna hit the rim?”
TJ Warren made it look like no time had passed. Nothing but net.
He's back. pic.twitter.com/F0Ozi9c66D
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) December 3, 2022
The first-year Net would go on to post 10 points, four rebounds, and one steal in 17 minutes of action in the 14-105 win. Warren immediately made his presence felt on both ends, something he emphasized pregame when asked what he could bring to the Nets rotation.
“My ability to be versatile out there. Just to be a two-way player, something I took pride in since entering the NBA,” he replied. “Being able to guard multiple guys while being able to be that three-level scorer at the same time.”
Warren’s scoring punch off the bench was refreshing for a Nets team that has been over-reliant on Kevin Durant this year. The North Carolina State product showed no shortage of confidence in his debut, shooting 5 for 11 from the field. His defensive capabilities were also quickly put on display.
It didn't take long for T.J. Warren to flash his defensive capabilities last night.
He had Scottie Barnes in jail on this possession. pic.twitter.com/cO9V0uomAT
— Erik Slater (@erikslater_) December 3, 2022
Warren moved up and down the court with ease in his first action since December 2020. The veteran gave high praise to Brooklyn’s performance team and spoke about his confidence in the rehabbed foot postgame.
“I had no concerns mentally with my foot,” TJ Warren said. “I put in a lot of work to get back to this point. I was super confident in the way I was feeling, the way I was moving, feel like I was moving pretty good. Only get better from here. I feel great.”
The forward is not the only Net making a difficult return from surgery on a lower extremity. Joe Harris and Seth Curry both struggled early this season while coming back from offseason ankle procedures. Warren said both were a significant help to him throughout his long rehab process.
“They played a huge role. Obviously, Joe and Seth, just talking to them,” Warren said of his teammates. “They’re coming off foot surgeries, so just getting their feedback and how they felt in their process of coming back. Some of the similarities of them dealing with foot injuries, it kind of gave me peace of mind knowing what they went through and just, alright, that’s normal, ok it’s going to take time.”
While Warren’s return was highly-anticipated, Jacque Vaughn emphasized managing expectations after nearly two years away from the court.
‘The goal is just to see him in a uniform playing and excited about basketball again,” the head coach said.
Warren checked that box and more, reaching double figures in his debut. The forward’s teammates were visibly elated after each of his buckets.
“I mean, it’s hard not to feel for anybody like that,” Kyrie Irving said postgame. “When you see T.J. come in today, I pray that he’s all smiles because he deserves it. Two years of not playing something you love or you’re not being able to work at the highest level and you’re watching everybody continuously get better, I’m pretty sure he had that itch. So I’m glad that he got out the way and he could do it in Brooklyn.”
Warren’s role will only grow for a Nets team in need of bench scoring and sizable defenders. And the seven-year veteran said his uncertain journey back to the NBA floor changed his perspective as he steps into another opportunity.
“Just being away from the game you’ve been playing for 20-plus years, and for it to be taken away from you was definitely an eye opener. It made me just look myself in the mirror and realize that one day the ball can stop bouncing. So it just put things in perspective in that way,” TJ Warren said.
“Just know I was really working behind the scenes to get back to this point, and it took every emotion I went through to get back here, so definitely grateful for this opportunity to play again.”