Ah, poor T.J. Warren. While Devin Booker won over the hearts of Suns fans and general NBA fans alike in the second half of the 2015-16 season, Warren sat on the sideline nursing a broken right foot. Going into this season Booker has already achieved nationwide recognition, while Warren is given the role of ugly stepsister. To this point, T.J. has spent his career on the bench, known by Suns fans mostly for his proficiency in dazzling with “quiet” 15-20 point performances.
That all changes now.
Let’s start with what we’ve always known about T.J. Warren; the man can score.
Through three preseason games, Warren is averaging 12.3 points and 4.7 rebounds per game on 46.3 percent shooting. Last season he fared even better before breaking his foot, averaging 11 points (17.3 points per 36 minutes) on 50 percent shooting. He also made huge strides with his three-point shot, knocking down 28-of-70 threes (40 percent).
Even after adding a three, Warren’s offensive game is old school. He loves to play off-ball cutting to the basket, and when he does have the ball he can drive at the basket performing a variety of floaters and circus layups. Here are a few highlights from the last two preseason games.
This is one of Warren’s bread-and-butter moves. He uses the off-ball screen by Dudley to get open, takes one step at his man and then rises up with a floater from the elbow that looks effortless.
This time the screen that initiates the play is set by Alex Len, allowing Warren to get into position at the top of the key. Warren has the excellent body control to charge at the defense and hold the ball in mid-air for a second before floating a layup. By the time Gobert comes over to help it’s too late.
Did someone say body control? Warren shows his prowess in the fastbreak on this next play. His Eurostep move doesn’t shake off the defense, but he fights through contact from two defenders in mid-air to will the shot in. As a bonus, this play starts off with a Warren block on Ingles. We’ll get back to defense later.
Suns fans have seen this play so many times before. Warren loses his man, cuts, and finishes with a circus layup.
There’s no doubt about T.J.’s scoring ability. As a threat from both outside and inside, it is expected that he will establish himself as a third scoring option in the starting lineup behind Bledsoe and Booker. Warren’s off-ball cuts to the basket complement Booker’s off-ball movement around the perimeter quite nicely while Bledsoe commands the offense.
That being said, his placement in the starting lineup is still more a matter of consequence than it is a permanent gift from Coach Watson. Tucker will return to action fairly soon, and Warren must prove that he has made strides on the defensive end in order to keep his starting spot for good.
Luckily, there have been encouraging signs of that as well. Earl Watson called attention to Warren’s defense on Kawhi Leonard in the game against San Antonio.
“The second half was really big for us, especially to start the game out with nine straight stops. TJ Warren led it by closing up the gap with Kawhi, basically getting in his chest and forcing him to make plays instead of coming off the pick ‘n roll without any pressure.”
Warren returned the favor by crediting Watson following the Utah game:
“I’m more confident on the defensive end, probably just familiar and more experienced. Just taking the next step defensively, Earl has done a good job of helping with that.”
When it comes to one-on-one defense, Warren was considered a below-average defender last year. He allowed opponents to shoot 45.4% from the field, a +1.1% difference over their usual 44.3% shooting clip (stats courtesy of NBA.com/stats). Compare that to Tucker, who held opponents to 43% shooting, a -1.6% difference from their average 44.6% clip. A truly “elite” wing defender, Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard, had a -5.6% differential, holding opponents to 39.2% shooting overall.
A closer examination of Warren’s defensive numbers indicate that when it came to contesting jumpers, he was perfectly average. In fact, he was better than P.J. On shots greater than 15 feet Warren had a differential of +0.5% while Tucker’s differential sits at +0.9%.
So why the poor overall numbers? T.J. was routinely bullied on the inside, as opponents shot 5.1% better against him than they did on average for shots inside of 10 feet.
There are no available defensive stats for three preseason games, and even if there were they wouldn’t be of much use. But Warren’s defensive deficiencies last season, at least by the numbers, appear to be more of a problem of strength (or lack thereof) than a problem of poor fundamentals. As long as Warren can hold his own bothering and contesting outside shots, the interior defense will improve as he becomes stronger and more physical. Adding strength is a priority for just about every prospect ever. To examine his team defense would require a more thorough analysis and film study, but there are reasons to believe that Warren is on the right track.
What can Suns fans expect from Warren in his third NBA season? He will have to adjust to sharing the ball with Bledsoe and Booker, and for that reason will likely not be breaking any scoring records. But anywhere from 14-18 points per game along with 5 rebounds and improved defensive numbers? That’s very plausible.
Although his personality may seem subdued at times, you may need more than two hands to count the number of games this season where Warren will assert himself as the go-to option.