So many moves made the last two summers appeared to nudge starting forward T.J. Warren further and further into the Phoenix Suns past rather than its present or future.
The natural small forward started next to rising star Devin Booker the last two seasons, but during that time the Suns drafted like-sized players at #4 overall (Josh Jackson, 2017) and #10 overall (Mikal Bridges, 2018) before spending all their free agent money this summer on 10-year veteran Trevor Ariza,
All of a sudden, the Suns had five talented players for four rotation spots (two starters, two backups) along the wing and it’s Warren who appeared to be the odd man out. No way you sit your superstar, or your fresh-faced lottery picks or your $15 million superglue to make way for Warren right?
But Tony Buckets didn’t hang his head and grump his way through training camp like so many other Suns players have done in recent years. He just kept playing, adapting as best he could to what coach wanted him to do, and guess what?
T.J. Warren is still relevant and still a big part of what the Suns will do this season as long as they’re trying to win games. He scored 17 points in 24 minutes off the bench in the Suns thrilling season opener.
Coming out of the training camp and preseason shuffle, we see a guy who is mostly the same Tony Buckets we’ve come to know, yet different in some critical ways. He can still make contested shots from anywhere at any angle inside the arc, but now he’s adding to his game in very modern NBA ways.
On the plus side, the former late-lottery pick (2014) is a talented scorer who doesn’t turn the ball over. Warren had the lowest turnover rate among the 16 players last year who averaged 19+ points and 5+ rebounds with an effective shooting percentage over 50%.
But he played poor defense (worst defensive rating and second fewest defensive win shares), didn’t set up his teammates (bottom-10 in assist rate) and didn’t take three pointers (bottom 4 in 3P attempt rate) among a wider net of 47 like sized starters: 6’6” - 6’9” who started at least 50 games last year.
Those fatal flaws made Warren virtually irrelevant within the Suns’ organization and throughout the league this offseason. Warren had no trade value — the Suns tried to use him in a package to get a starting-quality point guard — and was the odd man out in Igor’s passing and three-point heavy offense.
On Wednesday night, though, Warren showed why he’s still got it.
Warren is now coming off the bench mostly as the backup to Ryan Anderson at power forward, allowing Jackson and Ariza to get their minutes at small forward while recent lottery picks Dragan Bender and Mikal Bridges watch from the bench.
Not only did Warren deliver his usual scoring (17 points in 24 minutes) but along the way he took four threes without hesitation and made extra passes to help trigger the blender of the Suns new passing offense (3rd in passes per game so far, right behind tonight’s opponent Denver).
Plus he had this sweet steal on Luka Doncic that got the crowd on their feet.
The Suns won’t convert on 35 of their 40 potential assists again (yeah, they only missed 5 shots off potential scoring passes on Wednesday), but the more comfortable they get in coach Igor Kokoskov’s offense the more potential assists they will create (3rd in total passes but just 19th in potential assists).
And it looks like T.J. Warren is owning that role most of us wanted for him: as one of the most dangerous Sixth Man candidates in the league.
*all stats in this article courtesy of nba.com/stats