PHOENIX – A week since the NBA trade deadline passed, the marquee name plastered all around the Valley is that of 13-time All-Star Kevin Durant, who is expected to make his debut for the team Thursday night against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Durant’s arrival has raised the team’s championship aspirations after a rocky, injury plagued first half of the season. However, great expectations aren’t all that Durant brings with him from Brooklyn.
He also packed a wingman familiar to Suns followers.
Forward T.J. Warren, who the Suns selected with the 14th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, is part of that package the Nets sent to the Suns along with Durant.
It is a homecoming for the 29-year-old Warren, who played in 261 games while rocking the orange and purple. “Tony Buckets,” as Warren was known, averaged 14.4 points per game but he also was often sidelined with injuries. He averaged just 52 games a season while in Phoenix and played in only 43 before he was traded in 2019.
The Suns re-introduced Warren to the media Monday, along with forward Darius Bazley, who the club acquired from Oklahoma City in a separate deal.
For Warren, the reunion is an exciting opportunity. The Suns have undergone dramatic change since he departed in that trade to Indiana. The Suns never played in a postseason game during his first tenure.
They advanced to the NBA Finals in 2021 and had the best record in the NBA last season with a franchise record 64 victories before being dumped in the NBA Western Conference semifinals by Dallas.
That loss, coupled with the slow start this season, raised questions about whether the window of championship opportunity for the team had slammed shut. The Durant trade appears to have opened wide, and Warren will get to be part of the run if Phoenix makes one.
“I get to come back home,” Warren said. “The place where I spent the longest part of my NBA career, and to be back here with Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul, (coach) Monty Willams, this whole team, it’s a surreal feeling.”
After the Suns traded Warren to the Pacers in the 2019 offseason, Warren continued to struggle to stay healthy. In three seasons at Indiana, the 6-foot–8 forward played only 71 games, with many nagging injuries keeping him away from the floor.
Warren said he worked tirelessly to return to form.
“Being off for two years, I got to look at myself in the mirror,” Warren said. “I worked so hard to get back to this point. It definitely feels good to be back at my level. It’s been great, too. Of course, be back here and keep building brick by brick and getting back to it.”
Warren received a call around 1 a.m. in his New York City apartment informing him that he would be heading across the country to the city where his career began.
He said the news brought back old memories and gave him a chance to enjoy the basics, like being able to drive for the first time since August. Visiting his favorite restaurants and seeing old friends made him feel as if the Suns fit him like a glove.
The 22-year-old Bazley played his entire four-year career in Oklahoma City, and while he might not be in familiar surroundings in Phoenix, he will see a familiar face.
As a rookie, Bazley played with current Suns point guard Chris Paul. He said the experience was tremendous for his development. He’s excited to be with the Suns, and especially to be paired up with the 12-time All-Star again.
“Everyone has welcomed me with open arms,” Bazley said. “Some of the guys I’m a little bit familiar with, obviously Chris more than anybody else. Basketball is like a brotherhood.”
He said playing with Paul was “fun” and the veteran playmaker made the game, “easy, made it simple.”
“Especially with a rookie coming in and not really understanding the game that well,” Bazley said. “He was always there, whether with guidance or whatever it was off the court. It will be good to plug back in with him.”
The new Suns forward averaged 5.4 points per game in 15.4 minutes with the Thunder this season. Bazley’s seven-foot wingspan makes his defensive capability intriguing for Williams.
With all the changes to the roster because of the blockbuster Durant deal and addition of Bazley, the rotation Williams will use is up in the air.
But Bazley said he’s ready to slide in and help in any way he can.
“Looking to make a push for a championship,” Bazley said of his goals for the Suns. “It’s a bigger stage here. My mindset is always to try and help the team.”
The Suns’ fast-paced, aggressive style of play also excites Bazley, who brings his own talents and athleticism to the Valley.
While expectations for the Suns have skyrocketed with the Durant deal, creating a buzz around the Valley even with the Super Bowl and PGA Tour in town, the prospect of raising the franchise’s first Larry O’Brien Trophy hasn’t changed the mindset of Warren and Bazley.
They agreed there is much more work to be done as the season unfolds if the Suns are going to reach those expectations.
“It’s been great,” Warren said. “It’s just taking it day by day, understanding it’s not going to happen overnight, building towards something great, towards the future and everybody getting used to it.”