This Season Is T.J. Warren's Best Chance to Prove Himself to the Phoenix Suns


Drafted with the 14th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, T.J. Warren has largely struggled to secure himself as a productive player for the Phoenix Suns. This can be attributed in part to injuries that have limited him to playing in only 87 games through two years in the league, but even when healthy he has struggled to forge minutes for himself in the rotation.

With P.J. Tucker sidelined to begin the season, Warren will have the opportunity to make a mark in the starting lineup. Even when Tucker is fully healthy, Warren will likely be the first forward off the bench because of the youth behind him on the depth chart in rookies Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. However, that same youth could make the beginning of this season an even more crucial period for Warren to prove himself.

Bender and Chriss do not appear to be ready to make significant contributions in the NBA just yet, but the highly touted prospects are expected to eventually jump into the starting lineup. That may happen next season, or the season after that. It’s entirely fair to think at least one of them could see decent playing time by the end of this season, particularly if the Suns fall out of the playoff hunt as quickly as is expected.

This creates pressure for Warren to prove that he belongs on the team in more than a reserve role, or at least deserves to be traded to a team that can give him an opportunity to play if he eventually finds himself without minutes in Phoenix. The stakes are heightened by his contract, which will be up after the 2017-18 season.

With opportunities withering, Warren is in a position to take advantage of any platform he’s given to prove himself. If he can’t, his trajectory as an NBA player could begin its downward arc.

What has he proven?

If there is one thing that Warren has proven, it is that he can score around the rim, making an impressive 69.2 percent of his career shots within two feet of the rim, per basketball-reference.com. This does not result from exclusively easy looks; Warren really does have nice touch around the rim (ignore that his foot hits the ground a half-second early in the below clip. It's still an impressive move, made all the more impressive by the fact that he's scoring on perhaps the best rim protector in the NBA in Rudy Gobert).

He saw himself taking fewer shots from this range during his sophomore season, a counterproductive change with one major benefit: he’s become a reliable three-point shooter from the corners.

Though he still struggles to hit three-pointers from above the break, Warren’s found a small niche for himself in the Phoenix offense as a floor-spacer. He could be doing more to fill this role, but he could also be doing less for a Phoenix team that is emphasizing a need for outside shooting ability from four (and sometimes all five) players on the court.

Per NBA.com’s player tracking data, more than one-fifth of Warren’s shots were spot-up attempts last season, and he ranked in the 86th percentile of all players spotting up. In general, his shot selection was outstanding as an NBA sophomore, as three-quarters of his shots were taken in transition, cutting to the hoop, running off of screens, spotting up, or going up after an offensive rebound.

Though he was only particularly effective spotting up and running off of screens, Warren nonetheless made himself an efficient offensive player by not wasting possessions with bad shots. He won’t be mistaken for a one-man offense, but as things stand now he can provide a little bit of glue.

What does he need to improve?

With his strengths in mind, it should be noted that Warren could improve on his shooting by extending his three-point shot comfortably above the break. In fact, he struggled to shoot effectively except along the baseline even on his mid-range tries.

Developing a reliable free-throw line jumper would allow the Suns to more effectively use Warren as a pivot point in the high post, allowing him a multitude of opportunities to rack up assists by passing to proven scoring threats like Devin Booker, Eric Bledsoe, and Brandon Knight as they run off of screens and cut to the hoop.

It’s not like Warren is miles off from providing this option for the Suns, but the better his mid-range game, the better equipped he will be to serve his team’s offense (a better eye for open teammates wouldn’t hurt, either).

The other significant area of need for Warren’s offensive game is his ability to draw fouls. For a player so capable of hitting shots close to the hoop, it is surprising that Warren only accumulated a free throw rate of .145 last season (for reference, this ranked 393rd of the 476 players according to Basketball-reference.com).

However, to critique Warren’s offense can only be categorized as nitpicking when there is another half of the court. Defense is the aspect of the game that could lead the younger players on the team past him on the depth chart before long.

Moving forward, the Suns would probably prefer to use Warren as a stretch power forward. Unfortunately, his horrendous rebounding and lack of strength creates significant voids on the defensive end when he plays this position. With Bender standing over seven feet tall and the uber-long Chriss jumping out of the gym every time he leaves the ground, the youngsters aren’t going to have trouble as NBA power forwards.

The easy solution is for Warren to accept life as a small forward, but according to Nylon Calculus, it will be in his best interest to find minutes as a power forward; per statistics compiled by Seth Partnow, the Suns were 6.9 points better per 48 minutes when Warren was used as a power forward than when he was used as a small forward. 

If Warren can’t prove himself to be as useful (or more) than the rookies as a power forward, he will almost certainly wedge himself out of small-ball lineups should Watson decide to run with an offensively-tantalizing three-guard approach further down the road (remember, Bender and Chriss will need some time to develop). This possibility is contingent on Knight remaining a part of the team (trade rumors just won’t leave him alone) and Watson resigning to let Booker spend time as a three, but this all remains perfectly plausible.

Even if Warren can’t start pulling down rebounds and holding his own against bigger players, he’ll have to improve on his perimeter defense if he wants to become a viable option at small forward (which, it pains me to say, he is currently not). Other than his anomalous statistics defending pick and roll ball handlers last season, Warren’s on-ball numbers speak for themselves.

Play Type (Defense) Poss Freq PPP Percentile
Isolation 27 9.6% 1.04 15.5
Spot Up 96 34.0% 1.02 38.8
Ball Handler 66 23.4% 0.70 82.0
Post Up 13 4.6% 1.08 12.1
Hand-Off 27 9.6% 1.37 3.3
Off Screen 30 10.6% 1.10 24.8

He isn’t much better off the ball, habitually losing his assignments on cuts or getting caught up in screens. Check out this play from a preseason game against the Jazz–it looks as if Boris Diaw is covered in flypaper.

Simply put, it is difficult for players to find a place in the league if they can’t do one of the following: create their own offense, bring in rebounds, defend inside, or defend outside. As it stands, this is precisely the state that Warren finds his game to be in. He’s lucky to be on a team seemingly destined to struggle, as it will leave him less susceptible to deep-bench relegation.

Unfortunately for Warren, loss of playing time will eventually be his fate if he cannot prove that there are other valuable dimensions to his game. With ample minutes falling at his feet to start the 2016-17 season, he finds himself with the best opportunity he may get.

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