For nearly the past two years, TJ Warren went through a challenging and emotional journey with hopes of finally being able to get back on the court.
The Nets wing spent that time rehabbing consecutive stress fractures in his left foot. Each stress fracture recovery stretched four to six months. Throughout the harsh injury rehabilitation, the 29-year-old never thought that his basketball career on the sport's biggest stage could be behind him.
"No, it was never ‘I’m not gonna [return].’ I knew I was going to come back," said Warren ahead of making his season debut against the Toronto Raptors on Friday evening. "I just didn't know, after multiple foot surgeries, four-to-six-month recovery both times, so it was a difficult process. I dealt with it. I’m past it now. So I'm here. Excited to be here and ready to do what I love to do, and that's play basketball, and just excited for tonight to be able to get on that court. Looking forward to it.”
It's rare for any player to return to the NBA after nearly two years away due to injury. While Warren was putting his blood, sweat, and tears into his foot rehab, he looked at himself in the mirror. It made him realize how quickly the game he's loved his entire life could be taken away from him. In his words, 'the ball could stop bouncing.'
"Just being away from the game that you've been doing for 20-plus years, to have that be taken away from you was definitely an eye-opener," Warren said. "It made me just look at myself in the mirror and realize that one day, the ball could stop bouncing. So just put things in perspective in that way.”
The Nets have supported the 29-year-old wing since his arrival in Brooklyn. Last month, Warren disclosed that having Nets team orthopedist Dr. Martin O'Malley, who performed the second foot procedure, around him provided comfort. The wing also praised the training staff ahead of his season debut for helping him get cleared.
“Just a lot of grind, a lot of emotions. The training staff here has done a tremendous job from top to bottom making sure [I’m] overcoming this injury. It’s a very difficult injury to deal with for two years," Warren stated. "They knew how to attack it and they did a great job so credit to them for getting you back to this point. I'm very grateful for that. There's a lot of emotions behind the scenes and just to be able to talk to you guys about the debut means so much to me.”
Beyond the training staff, two Nets played huge roles in keeping his spirits high: Joe Harris and Seth Curry. The three got close and Warren took as much knowledge away from the sharpshooters, who also came off foot-related (ankle) operations.
“They played a huge role. Obviously, Joe [Harris] and Seth [Curry] I was just talking to them," Warren said. "They coming up off foot surgeries, so just getting back and how they felt while coming back. There are some similarities to dealing with foot injuries. It kind of gave me peace of mind knowing what they were doing. It's just like one of those things just got to keep working away back.”
In the days leading up to Warren's season debut, there were countless emotions he was dealing with seeing the light at the end of the tunnel brighter than ever. He praised his family and friends for keeping him calm during that period.
“I've been talking to my mom a lot. She's been keeping me emotionally sane. Like I said, the past 48 hours it's been a crazy crazy feeling I can't even describe," Warren said. "My family and friends, they’ve been in my corner with us and downs the past two years. But just know, I’ve really worked behind the scenes to get back to this point. Every emotion I went through to get back here so definitely grateful for this opportunity to be able to play again.”
There are little to no expectations for Warren in his season debut, let alone in the next handful of games. The Nets' head coach Jacque Vaughn said the only goal for the wing is to get him on the court with his teammates.
"Just getting him back on the floor, that’s the goal of the night, and just having him play and be around his teammates," said Vaughn on Warren. "I think we have to be smart in expectations, what that looks like, what his minutes look like, what his wind looks like but I think the goal is just to see him in a uniform and playing and excited about basketball again."
In his last full season (2019-20), Warren averaged a career-best 19.8 points per game with shooting splits of 53.6/40.3/81.9. He topped his career year with a scoring explosion in the NBA Bubble, posting averages of 31 points per game and a career-high 53-point eruption.
There's no secret it will take time for Warren to get his legs underneath him before showing flashes of the scoring threat he once was. To Warren himself, what happened in the past is in the past. But he's confident he'll get back to that level eventually.
"It’s no challenge at all," said Warren on seeing expectations with the Nets. "What I've been in the past is definitely in the past. Definitely capable of getting back to that eventually but right now, it's just enjoying the moment and just being on the court. I'm gonna just work my way back to that. I'll work hard and I'll put a lot of time in my game and just trust myself. So just no expectations at all.”