Amid all of the exclamation for Devin Booker's strong rookie season, T.J. Warren became a forgotten man of sorts for the Phoenix Suns. Prior to a broken foot ending his season in February, Warren was putting together an admirable campaign within a myriad of disappointing losses.
Though he only started four games, there were little moments here and there where Warren proved his worth by raining in buckets in a litany of ways. In college, Warren was regarded as a mid-range assassin, working the painted area with unique floaters, crisp turnarounds, and a strong prowess for finishing through contact. As his evolution has taken course, the 3-point arc has been an area of focus, and the North Carolina State product has was worked hard to make himself a 40 percent marksman from distance last season.
That is a crucial development given Warren's lengthy frame; the threat of the three will unlock funky, athletic lineups featuring Warren as a stretch four. Defenders will be forced to stick closer to Warren and thus open more driving lanes for Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight to create within. Without the presence of a respectable 3-point shot, spacing would be cramped.
Warren has a knack for coming off of screens hard, or swiftly cutting to the rim at the precise moment when his defender gets caught napping. Those skills tend to create lucrative, high percentage shots at the rim without the use of a dribble. With this in mind, 46 percent of Warren's shot attempts were taken without a dribble, and he shot a whopping 57 percent on such attempts, per NBA.com.
While most young players have the tendency to ball-watch if they are not given the opportunity to be the main ball-handler, Warren looks for ways to make the defense pay. Watch as he takes advantage of Andre Iguodala over-helping on a Bledsoe drive by simply diving to the rim:
Timely cutting can help maximize a player's threat from the perimeter if he is being ignored by a defender, and Warren makes his money by tussling it up near the rim and roaming the baselines when given the requisite space. As his shot has become more consistent, backdoor cuts have turned into corner 3-pointers; a desired result for any modern NBA offense.
Playing with two primary ball-handlers in Bledsoe and Knight has relegated Warren to more of an off-ball role, but he has shown enough handle to project as a feisty scorer off the dribble when given the chance. For now, he is best served to attack defenders that are off-kilter and unbalanced on a close out, but the hope is that with time he will be able sustain a hefty one on one game.
Due to his comfortability within the mid-range area, Warren has accrued an array of floaters that throw off the timing of lunging big men within the paint. The height of the ball on these babies is paramount, and the touch that Warren possesses is nothing short of beautiful:
Notice how Warren gets the shot up and over the towering Timofey Mozgov just before he has the opportunity to swat at it like a deranged dad swatting at a fly during an Arizona summer.
In a traditional sense, players will come off of screens in hopes of setting up an open look at a 3-point shot. Watch any Golden State Warriors game and you will see both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson swinging around behemoths like Andrew Bogut to spring themselves away from gassed defenders and into open space. Instead of rolling around screens for threes, Warren will rifle into the painted area and use his length to get off his patented floaters or a nifty turnaround a la Shaun Livingston. (I swear I am not trying to reference every Warrior in this paragraph.)
In the 3-point heavy NBA, screening for high percentage bunnies is a lost art. Warren makes good use of a Booker screen to pin poor Dion Waiters down in the paint here:
That is where Warren is at his best -- bullying smaller defenders in the painted area and utilizing his positioning and quick release to bait foul calls.
It is no secret that Warren's game is best suited for an uptempo style where defenses are induced to act in a lackadaisical fashion. There is a reason why his best games came against teams that operate under a fastbreaking mantra (Golden State, Oklahoma City and Cleveland when they actually want to play), and it will be important for the young forward to continue to become a threat off the dribble within a halfcourt setting. Doing damage off of screens and witty cuts is a nice start, but in order to take the next step, it will be imperative that Warren becomes lethal as a shot creator.
Much of the malice towards Warren's game comes from his lack of defensive instincts, but he tries hard, and should only progress from a mental standpoint as his reps increase. Keep in mind that the injury bug has hit Warren at the most inopportune times, and that he is still only only 22 years old. Learning defensive schemes in the NBA requires patience and persistence, and Warren, whom has been at the practice facility often this summer, has the looks of a player that wants to improve.
With only 87 games played in two injury-plagued seasons, the jury is still out on Warren's place in the league. His offensive-minded game figures to translate well as a supersized sixth man that can tread water as the starters get a breather. There is still untapped potential in regards to his use as a small-ball four man, and it is safe to say that Coach Watson will (hopefully) fiddle with that idea once the season rolls around.
Quite simply, Warren is a lengthy wing that inputs maximum effort and can get buckets. He falls under the realm of a malleable swingman that most GMs are hoarding at a premium.
The Suns are lucky to have him.