Phoenix Suns fans have gotten well used to disappointment during the last two seasons, but of all the mortifying events that have unfolded in front of our dumbfounded faces, losing the last 35 games of T.J. Warren's sophomore season was among the most cruel.
After a rookie season that consisted of only 614 minutes, almost all of which came after the white flag had been unofficially waved, Warren entered the 2015/16 with a ready-made rotation spot after dominating summer league for the second straight season.
While P.J. Tucker retained his usual starting spot at small forward, it was widely assumed that Warren would eclipse the veteran sooner rather than later. Tucker was clearly the better defender of the two, but Warren's gift for finding buckets both in the halfcourt and transition seemed to make his ascension inevitable.
Alas, we will have to wait. Warren was shut down for the season after a fracture in his foot was discovered on January 29. Up to that point, the slithery forward was scoring 17.3 points per 36 minutes on 50.1% shooting, including a surprising 40% from long range.
What wasn't surprising was the honed craft he displayed in seeking out open space on the court for easy scores.
Warren flashes in the paint here, but Festus Ezeli has the lane sealed off as Golden State is in a zone on this possession. Devin Booker floats toward the center on the perimeter so that Warren can flow into the corner pocket, but Warren is quick to realize that not a single defender has eyes on him as Eric Bledsoe attacks the paint. He immediately corrects course back to the rim and Bledsoe spots him just in time.
The Suns, for the third straight season, had some deficiencies when it came to moving the ball as only 47% of their field goals from inside the arc were assisted, the sixth-worst mark in the league (things were better beyond the arc, where they ranked 12th with an assist rate of 83.1%). Warren did his part to buck this trend as 68.8% of his field goals were assisted, although he was very rarely on the passing end of an assisted make.
Excluding Cory Jefferson and Orlando Johnson, who both failed to register a single assist, Warren's paltry assist percentage of 7.2 topped only Tyson Chandler, at 6.0.
The freethrow line is another area where Warren's numbers could use a boost. Among Suns' regulars, only Ronnie Price (.136) scored a lower freethrow rate than Warren's .145. While one would definitely like to see a natural-born scorer like Warren draw a few more fouls, in the context of his style of play it sort of makes sense.
His innate ability to stop short and nail the floater over the interior defender is a big reason why he is a productive scorer in the first place, and his entire style is built around finding spots on the floor that defenders aren't occupying. Even in transition, Warren tends to forsake the opportunity of drawing a foul for the surety of an easy layup.
Here, Warren finds himself on the break with only Andre Iguodala back to protect the rim. Iguodala rears back and prepares to meet Warren at the top, where fouls very commonly occur, but Warren instead throws in an extra hop in the lane (and maybe a teensy travel) to skate past Iggy and drop in the layup.
Freethrows are an essential part of efficient scoring, but it's more forgivable when a player can score as easily around the rim as does Warren, who dropped in 67.8% of his attempts from 3 feet and in. It's also more forgivable for Warren to pull up from midrange when he can knock in 48.9% of his attempts from 10-16 feet. The fact that he can still post a TS% of .549 with such a poor freethrow rate is a testament to how proficient a scorer he is.
Still, drawing fouls should be the next box he checks on his development list.
Warren also made strides in expanding his scoring ability. "6'8 Floater Artist" is a novel thing to put on an NBA resume, but it's not exactly something a player can carve a career out of on its own. As mentioned above, he pumped his 3P% up to .400 from .238 while doubling his attempts from deep per 36 minutes, from 1.2 to 2.4.
A grain of salt might be in order here, however, as his shot still looks a bit flat and jerky.
Plenty of shooters have had successful careers with more unsightly jumpers than that of Warren, but it's still probably a good idea to take the Missouri stance on whether or not he can be anything close to a 40% shooter from deep over the course of his career. 54.3% of his attempts from deep came from the corners, so it remains to be seen if he can extend his range above the break with any consistency. There's also a legitimate concern in how his offseason foot surgery might affect his form in the future, which isn't something you'll find in any textbook in the first place.
As for his defense, no one confused him for a stopper on the wings when he was a rookie and no one will now. His DRtg of 110 ties him with Mirza Teletovic for the fourth-worst mark on the team among players with at least 500 minutes played, behind Booker, Goodwin and Brandon Knight. This will likely be his biggest hurdle in transitioning from bench scorer to NBA starter, but he does show enough awareness and willingness on that end to lend hope that he can at least become passable at some point.
Warren was able to expand on what he was already good at, namely playing within his limits and scoring efficiently in a variety of funkalicious ways. Perhaps with a full season under his belt, he can round out the rest of his game to the point where it becomes impractical to keep him on the bench. Improved defense and passing would be a delicious side dish to those crazy buckets he can be counted on to produce, and frankly it's a damn shame that an injury robbed us of the chance to see what he could do in a doomed campaign.
Could he have topped Booker's scoring high of 34 points? Now that would've been an interesting subplot.
Here's hoping to a healthy season of T.J. Warren and Devin Booker in 2016/17, whose scoring styles seem to complement each other's perfectly. Imagine Booker's shooting and playmaking ability next to a wing-mate that can produce buckets as nutty as this:
And whatever the hell this is:
Warren earned a opening night rotation spot and held on to it tightly even as the wheels came off on the Suns' season as he roundly met any reasonable expectations in Year 2. As one of the few players on the roster that even remotely resembles a building block, here's hoping that he can bounce back from his injury and be a key contributor on Suns teams for many years.
Long live Tony Buckets.