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Suns’ T.J. Warren on road to recovery

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The Phoenix Suns look forward to the return of T.J. Warren to the lineup.

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Golden State Warriors v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Phoenix Suns small forward T.J. Warren returned to Phoenix this week to work out with his teammates for the first time since breaking his foot in a game nearly nine months ago.

After doing individual workouts for the last month or so, the last bit with assistant coach Ty Corbin, the just-turned 23 year old will start out with two-on-two, then three-on-three before graduating to full court five-on-five scrimmaging later this month if all goes well with the foot.

Suns training camp officially starts on September 27 (three weeks from yesterday) after the annual Media Day on Monday, September 26. While training camp practices are closed to the public, the team will hold a free, open scrimmage on Saturday, October 1 at noon at the Walkup Skydome on the NBA campus.

Most of the team has been working out at Talking Stick Resort Arena’s practice court off and on for weeks. As Paul Coro reports, some of the Suns never left Phoenix over the hot summer, including Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe (knee rehab) will reportedly start his first five-on-five workouts this week since his December knee injury.

It appears the rest of the team - with only one exception now - are here. Jared Dudley joined the team (or is it re-joined?) the team on Tuesday, leaving only Leandro Barbosa (post-Olympics rest, requested by the Suns) missing from the workouts.

Yes, even 34-year old Tyson Chandler came back earlier this year, after not joining the team until late September last year due to a death in the family.

That makes 13 guaranteed contracts in town, plus non-guaranteed John Jenkins (whose d-day is not until late October).

  • C = Chandler / Alex Len / Alan Williams
  • PF = Dudley / Marquese Chriss (R) / Dragan Bender (R)
  • SF = P.J. Tucker / Warren
  • SG = Brandon Knight / Devin Booker / Archie Goodwin / John Jenkins
  • PG = Eric Bledsoe / Tyler Ulis (R)

Warren suffered a broken foot last January, had surgery in February and has been rehabbing since then. In July, coach Earl Watson said that Warren had just started running on his own. Now the 3rd year forward is ready to take the next step and soon will be running full speed with the rest of the guys.

While most pundits and observers are well aware that the return to health of point guard Eric Bledsoe and combo guard Brandon Knight will make the Phoenix Suns better in 2016-17, many of the same are barely mentioning another of the team’s top scorers.

Even most die-hard Suns fans have spent more time this summer talking about the other 13 guaranteed contract players than they have about Tony Buckets. And admittedly, the same is true about your favorite Bright Side blogger.

Tony Warren, Jr. has been a forgotten man.

Let us forget no more.

Here he is on New Year’s Eve, pouring in a career high 29 points against the vaunted Thunder.

He really showed off his newfound long-range stroke in this game to go along with his killer midrange and open court game. If Warren can hit three-pointers with consistency he can become one of the best individual scorers in the league. It’s really too bad he couldn’t stay healthy last spring when the Suns were in desperate need of scoring punch.

He’s good

Warren, coming off a 2015 first-team All-Summer League selection and two years removed from second-team AP All-America in college, seems tailor-made for top scorer role on a young team.

He can score in myriad ways, with long-range bombs, floaters, slithery drives to the hoop, on the break, in the halfcourt, off the pass, off the dribble, against tight D and loose D, against tall and short defenders.

And it just might have turned out that way. If Warren had stayed healthy, he might have teamed with Devin Booker to give the Suns a pair of 20-point scorers throughout the spring in a way that Alex Len just could not provide.

But not good with Booker?

But it’s also true that Booker and Warren were not a great pairing on the court last year before Warren’s injury, which means they might not have complemented each other as much as you might hope.

Warren and Booker produced a minus-10.8 points per 100 possessions in 432 minutes together (four points worse than Warren’s overall plus/minus). That’s Warren’s second-worst two-man lineup, worsted only by pairing with Tyson Chandler (-18.8 per 100). With Booker, the Suns’ rebound rate dropped by a whopping 11% and their free throw rate dropped 6%.

You can explain that away with a comment that Warren only got the first three months of Booker’s NBA career, but that would be ignoring the obvious. They have many of the same strengths (scoring) and most of the same weaknesses (defense, rebounding). Playing them together on the wing for big minutes might have gotten the Suns another few points per game, but the team would have yielded even more.

T.J. Warren is a poor rebounder with a 7.7% rebound rate. In contrast, P.J. Tucker owns a 11.0% rebound rate. It’s interesting though that Warren’s 7.7 rate is slightly higher than Jared Dudley’s (7.6) was last year through January, and just barely behind Marcus Morris’ rebound rate (7.8) during Mook’s “career year” in Detroit. Other high profile small forwards with surprisingly poor RRs are Gordon Hayward (8.2), Jimmy Butler (7.1), DeMarre Carroll (8.4) and Luol Deng (8.5).

The problem was pairing Warren with Devin Booker’s 5% RR. Again, Booker isn’t the worst, but he’s not good enough to offset Warren’s deficiency. At the time of Warren’s injury, Warren was 8th on the team in RR while Booker was 13th. (Booker’s RR only went down with more playing time, by the way, to 4.6% from 2/1/2016 on).

And beyond the RR, neither of the two is very good individual or team defender. Jimmy Butler can easily get away with a low rebound rate by providing top-notch defensive skills on the wing. Neither Warren nor Booker are good defenders yet.

The solution?

Well, to me the solution is easy. The Suns need to put Warren in a position to excel, just as they need to do for Booker. And that means splitting them up for the most part, at least until they prove they can co-exist in a positive way on the court.

Booker should be the starter at shooting guard, while Warren can come off the bench and play most of his minutes as the top scorer on the second unit.

In fact, Warren has already shown he’s a better second-unit guy early in his career.

Warren’s highest scoring month was November, when all the guys were healthy and he was soaking up second-unit minutes as the top bench scorer. While Bledsoe and Knight were pouring in 20+ a game, and Markieff Morris was 30-percenting his way to 13.3 points a game, Warren was the team’s 4th leading scorer at 13.2 points in November.

Also making a case for Buckets in the second unit, Warren’s best lineups last season were with guys like Price, Knight, Teletovic and Leuer, along with Len at center. He struggled when playing with the team’s youngest guys (Booker, Goodwin) and oldest (Chandler) and didn’t play well with Morris either. One player Warren did well with: Brandon Knight.

Next season, the Suns should roll with Booker at starter, protected by defenders/rebounders P.J. Tucker and Eric Bledsoe in the first unit.

Then off the bench, Warren can help the Suns keep up the scoring along with Brandon Knight. I know you’ll ask how Warren can play well with Knight - whose also not a good defender - but not with Booker? That’s a good question, but the reality is that Warren and Knight together on the court produced only a minus-4.3 points per 100 possessions - better than Warren’s overall plus/minus, and much better than his minutes with Booker. Still, Tucker might also have to spend some time with the second unit to give them some toughness.

Regardless of who Warren plays alongside, he will score at will and create some low-key highlights every game.

And I can’t wait to see that again.

*all stats in this article provided by basketball-reference.com and stats.nba.com