From the dawn of the “pace-and-space” (or as I like to call it, “all-everything”) era until now, much has been made about the ascension of the modern big man-- his transition from more traditional types, the skillset that scripts his dominance, and the style that merits his status as a unicorn. But we seem to have forgotten about the wing, home of the special players who brought the NBA to it’s new era. The Phoenix Suns T.J. Warren lives there, but he is an alien among a brotherhood of versatility.
A typical wing player in today’s version of basketball looks something like Paul George: long, athletic, and multi-talented. He can affect the game in a variety of ways, with the ball in his hands and without. In George’s case, most of the damage done stems from the ability to hit shots on offense and challenge them on defense. A wing like the Indiana Pacers’ star can move up or down a position when needed, translating the impact further toward one of these two poles accordingly. Versatility itself is his primary game.
T.J. Warren is not this type of player, for the most part. He checks many of these boxes, but checks them in a way more reminiscent of yesterday’s stars than today’s unicorns. The shots Warren takes and makes are a step or two further inward than his counterparts across the league. The players he defends vary less in shape and size.
Yet watch the Phoenix Suns at any point over the last several seasons, and you’d definitely have gotten the impression that Warren was helping the team. In this quandary lies the central question regarding T.J. Warren’s place in the league-- and on this team.
The big men shirked from the hierarchy of this new NBA are easy to identify: ground-bound low-posters who limit the offensive potential of their teammates. It seems a new team each season is attempting to acclimate and nurture such a player into their system.
For wing players, the situation is less obvious. It’s seen over several possessions in subtle ways. A few steps inward by the player’s defender on one play, a less complex set on the next. Everything gets a little more sticky when you put one of these guys in a half-court offense-- usually. T.J Warren is an exception to this tendency.
The Suns are actually 1.6 better per 100 possessions on offense with Warren on the court, per nbawowy. Yet he’s shot only 23 percent on 91 long-range attempts this year, an abysmal number by any count. Instead, Warren works as hard as any player in the league to fill in the gaps around his shooting struggles to make himself valuable on offense. I mean this literally and figuratively.
According to NBA.com data, Warren is among the league’s leaders in scoring efficiency as a cutter. His 1.42 points per possession are the same as Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Davis, and he’s shooting 70 percent on those looks. Unfortunately, the rhythm and defensive attentiveness of NBA basketball are such that these plays rarely spring, regardless of how often it appears T.J. beats a defense. Even the league’s top big men don’t find their way to more than three or four of these situations per game, and Warren sits at a mere 1.1 cutting possessions per contest.
But boy is it smooth when his teammates can find him slithering toward the basket:
It starts with his shot-making, though it’s a different kind than the prolific, star-making type referenced earlier. Warren is like the most technically precise golfers, making crooked shots from every angle. He has a set of twists, turns and spins that tend to leave him (what he would probably consider) free and under control, a step ahead of a spliced defense.
Somehow, Warren is also second on the team in terms of scoring efficiency as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. He again falls right next to Wiggins at .81 points per possession in such situations. Considering his relative infrequent use of the play type, you’d like him to shoot better than the 43 percent he has so far this year out of the pick-and-roll, but perhaps that inexperience is also the cause of the poor shooting performance. It’s worth investigating whether Warren’s exploitation of the wormholes within a defense could extend to his ability as a passer.
He can make simple reads out of patterned sets:
Back to threes-- Warren is shooting only 22 percent from the corners after managing a solid 45 percent last season on a similarly small batch of opportunities. This random fluctuation should probably be expected when it’s such a rare part of the Suns’ offense; he made one of seven such shots during his rookie season and shot only 143 threes overall in two years at North Carolina State. Until coaches ask him to work harder at that part of his game or T.J. focuses harder on it, there may not be a logical path toward elite offense, but roast me like a marshmallow if the third-year forward doesn’t do everything else imaginable to put ball in hoop.
Shooting while on the move is often framed as one of the hardest things to do as an offensive player. The ability to do so consistently can put great scorers above the rest. Warren has made 36/43 runners this year, according to NBA.com shooting data. He has also made 45 percent of his floaters, another shot that ball-handlers work for years to make consistently:
(Another thing to note while we’re here is how difficult it is to analyze data like the shot type data on NBA.com. The difference between a runner and a floater can be inconsequential and a matter of choice. Either way, Warren is excellent at both.)
In the same way that Eric Bledsoe’s absence from this team for the last three weeks of the season was an opportunity for players like T.J. Warren, it could also be read as a challenge directly from the management team making decisions about these players’ futures. Warren has long been the throw-in that fans had no problem losing in superstar megadeals. For him, these Bledsoe-less games have been a time to take the ball more and prove himself as a polished offensive go-to.
However his usage rate has actually gone down over the four contests since the “management decision” that resulted in Bledsoe’s benching. That means the amount of possessions he’s finished for the Suns is lower than his season rate even as his scoring numbers (at 17.7 over the last four compared to 13.8 on the year) fly higher. Perhaps that is exactly Warren’s value. The Suns community has grown used to Warren’s efficient outbursts, and efficiency is the best sparring partner for usage. It is possible for a complementary offensive piece to be effective and valuable while also below-average in terms of possession. Only Leandro Barbosa has less turnovers of consistent rotation players, and Warren has cut his turnover rate (per 100 possessions) in half since his rookie year.
When the Suns drafted T.J. Warren three summers ago, the story was already written on how his effectiveness would be tied to his shot. This isn’t an unfamiliar narrative for wing players, but the ones about whom this narrative is constructed rarely go on to shoot 50 percent from the field and score consistently when given the chance. Warren’s style and career trajectory is basically unseen over the last fiveish seasons of modern ball in the NBA. It’s legitimately impressive that he has put in the work to make the experiment successful (for the most part-- let’s see how it turns when the team is trying to win).
And sure, the team is worse defensively to a greater degree than it is better offensively when Warren is on the court. The Suns’ net rating is worse with Warren on the court than without him, but the defense has been so bad all year that it’s hard to hold a wing accountable for that trouble. His hands are always active, and it never looks like his fault when the Suns’ defense breaks down.
Overall, Warren’s hard work and intelligent growth has keyed a development curve that has continued floating upward over three seasons. That doesn’t seem like it will change through the end of this season and into next, after which Warren will be a free agent. The Suns may have expected three years ago to have the problem of a clogged offense when Warren took the court. Instead, they will have find a way to maximize and vary offensive opportunities for a young veteran who has worked hard to earn more of them.