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T.J. Warren is reclaiming the mid-range in the NBA

The Pacers forward loves mid-range shooting, and doesn’t care what you think.

T.J. Warren does not want to talk about his shot selection. To be more specific, don’t ask him why he’s back to primarily attacking from the mid-range after finally embracing the three-point line last season with the Phoenix Suns. To Warren, the subject is tired and trivial.

Also: “It’s very annoying,” he mumbled, sitting at his locker before the Indiana Pacers beat the Brooklyn Nets on Monday night. “But it is what it is. I don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s basketball. I take what the defense gives me. If they want to let me shoot a three I’m gonna shoot it. If I can get in a pull up then I’ll shoot that. I mean, it’s not really rocket science to me.”

Warren is unconventionally conventional; very few can dine out on the shots he takes, at the volume he takes them, and still be a net-positive presence, but through 14 games that’s what he’s been. Warren is averaging about the same amount of points as he did in 2019, his net rating is positive for the first time in his career, and he hasn’t completely abandoned the three-point line. He’s still launching 3.1 of them per 36 minutes, which is only 1.7 fewer attempts than last year. But it’s still curious to see someone enjoy the most efficient season of their career and then respond by rejecting the clearest reason why. Right now, only 42.5 percent of all Warren’s shots are either threes or at the rim, which, among all players who’ve logged at least 250 minutes this season, is only behind DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Kawhi Leonard.

On its face this feels like devolution, the decision to stockpile DVDs one year into a Netflix subscription. The mid-range has value, but in limited doses. Barring a couple rare examples, it’s no longer a primary option for any player who wants to play a lot of minutes. Warren evidently feels like he can be one of them, and it makes sense for him to be sensitive about something that’s so tightly intertwined with his basketball identity. Warren entered the NBA as a master of runners, floaters, and off-the-dribble pick-me-ups that have essentially been outlawed by several teams. An old-school mid-range specialist, this season he’s turned that area of the floor into a warm bath.

Of all players who are taking at least six pull-up jumpers per game, only Buddy Hield boasts a higher field goal percentage than Warren’s 48.5 percent. This number is absurd, and a lot higher than anything he’s ever shot before. Also, nobody has attempted more field goals between 8-16 feet — Warren’s money zone. These looks are objectively worse than the spot-up threes he drilled at an impressive clip one year ago, but very few of them grind Indiana’s offense to a halt. Warren doesn’t over dribble and moves well off the ball, always seeking out comfortable sweet spots that fewer and fewer players are even allowed to exploit. His bread and butter comes just above the free-throw line. Warren will either run a pick-and-roll or dribble hand-off that frees him up for a short jumper.

If the big drops he’ll shovel the ball into the rim with a delicate touch that can’t/is no longer taught.

If there’s a switch, he’ll put it on the deck and operate in space — balanced, smooth, and in total command of what he wants to do.

Defenses want these shots, but they also aren’t easy to stop. The Pacers don’t mind them, and so long as Warren replaces the punch that was provided by Bojan Bogdanovic, they’ll accept his points however they come. Stylistically, they never had any qualms about how his skill-set would fit into their offense. Only one team (the San Antonio Spurs) takes less advantage of the three-point line and just a handful favor methodical half-court offense over opportunities in transition more than Indiana. In layman’s terms, this team is big, slow, and proud of it.

“I want him to put the ball in the basket, whether that’s shoot threes or shoot twos,” Pacers head coach Nate McMillan said. “There are opportunities for him to do both in our offense, when he’s spreading and when he’s playing with the ball. I think right now he’s playing pretty much like he was a couple years ago in Phoenix, where he’s looking to attack. He’s been known as a mid-range guy, and that’s what he’s doing right now for us. So we want both.”

The more bothersome question before the season began was how Warren would work on the defensive end, where Indy’s more appreciable strengths materialize. In Phoenix, Warren had never been part of a good defense, let alone one that solely relied on stops to win. The Suns were also better with him on the bench, but those teams were a total mess in ways that absolve any one player of blame.

To date, Indiana is happy with everything it’s seen from Warren’s defense, particularly his effort and focus. He’s combining the size and strength that theoretically makes him valuable with the energy and play-to-play commitment of someone who can actually bolster a solid scheme. Against the Nets, he chased Joe Harris around screens and cut off Spencer Dinwiddie drives. It was the type of individual elbow grease that goes a long way for a team that’s hanging on by a thread, with a tough schedule looming in December. (Indiana has played the easiest schedule in the entire NBA so far, according to ESPN)

All seems well at the moment, but unless Warren continues to make over half his mid-range shots — something that Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant would struggle to accomplish for an entire season on so many attempts — some type of adjustment will be necessary. Math is math, and even though Indy won’t force Warren to operate in ways that interrupt his rhythm — “We’re not asking him to shoot eight threes a game,” Pacers general manager Chad Buchanan told me — it would be helpful if a couple tough elbow jumpers eventually turned into open threes. Unless he starts to draw fouls, get his teammates involved (he has one of the 10 worst assist-to-usage ratios in the league), or attack the rim more than he does, this pretty much has to happen.

Aside from personal preference, the best explanation for Warren’s reversion isn’t complicated: Last season 99 percent of his minutes came at the four, where his job was to space the floor and shoot when someone passed him the ball. “That’s all I was really able to do,” Warren said. “Catch and shoot.” Now, on a team that’s seized a bygone brand of basketball by playing two traditional big men more often than not, it’s down to 41 percent, per Cleaning the Glass.

“I’m back at my regular position,” Warren said. “I’m comfortable.”

Time will tell as the season goes along how much that may evolve. The Pacers have been ravaged by injuries. Their opening night starting five has only appeared in one other game all season, and their conservative approach has become a life raft: The nightly goal is to outlive their opponent, not explode past them.

When Victor Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon (who’s assisted 30 of Warren’s baskets, more than every teammate duo except LeBron James to Anthony Davis, and Fred VanVleet to Pascal Siakam) are both on the floor, Warren should find cleaner outside looks, particularly from the corners. If he’s able to space the court, attack closeouts, and benefit from wider driving lanes, imagine how difficult it will be to stop Warren when he’s next to Brogdon, Oladipo, Jeremy Lamb/Doug McDermott, Domantas Sabonis/Myles Turner. Right now he usually finds himself squaring off against the opposing team’s top wing defender, but that won’t happen with Oladipo drawing a majority of the opponent’s attention.

Until then, in recasting himself as a relic, Warren has helped Indiana weather a difficult situation by being himself. And outside of his tangible impact on whether they win or lose, it’s enjoyable to see someone stand out from a pool of players that are increasingly homogenous and interchangeable. His effort to go against the grain has blurred the line between stubborn and bold. Bravo.

He’s also never shot this well on all the pull ups and push shots that make up most of his diet. Sustaining this hot start for a meaningful stretch — at least until Oladipo gets back — will not be easy. And assuming he sinks into an inevitable slump, Warren will eventually need to embrace a more sensible and efficient shot selection if the Pacers are to become the very best team they can be.