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T.J. Warren proved a lot, but he’s still in limbo with Suns

(AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)

PHOENIX — Another offseason finds Phoenix Suns forward T.J. Warren again in a limbo of sorts. He must prove that he’s not an injury-prone player who when healthy scores in bunches with the old-school relic of a mid-range game.

Few NBA players who can score 20 points with such ease find themselves as assumed trade chips rather than valuable pieces to a team’s future — let alone players on a long-term, reasonable contract.

But here we are after the 2018-19 season, where Warren scored 18 points per game as a 25-year-old who just added an accurate three-point shot for the first time in his career. Between head, foot and ankle injuries, Warren has never played more than 66 games in five regular seasons.

This past year, a bone bruise in his ankle held him out of all but 43 games, and the lingering effects into the offseason made some question whether the Suns were doing the shut-’em-down trick to aid their draft lottery cause. That’s not the case, according to Warren.

“I just wanted to make sure I could be myself when I came back,” he said. “Mentally and physically I wasn’t feeling like that. I didn’t want to rush it or have any second thoughts so I just wanted to make sure I was mentally and physically free. I wasn’t feeling like that, so that’s why I didn’t return.

“Just got to take it, try to make sure (you’re) preparing your body so it doesn’t happen again,” he added. “That’s my mindset going into next season is to just have an injury-free season. It’s been tough but it’s part of (the game).”

Warren is under contract through 2021-22, and his deal rises from $10.8 million to $11.8 million and then $12.7 million in each of the next three years.

But where he slots into Phoenix’s immediate plans remains unclear, like it has been the last two years.

After the 2016-17 season, the Suns looked all but poised to draft a wing, and that they did by selecting Josh Jackson fourth overall. Then last season, they selected another wing, Mikal Bridges, then signed forwards Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson. Though Ariza and Anderson flopped and were promptly traded by then-co-interim GM James Jones, the present provides few reasons for Warren to feel like he’s in a stable spot.

Jackson remains, Bridges looks like a key complementary piece and Phoenix is looking at a wing-heavy draft if the lottery doesn’t push them into the top two picks.

The Suns clearly need a traditional and more versatile power forward, and restricted free agent Kelly Oubre Jr. being arguably the top offseason priority only adds to questions about Warren’s place.

It’s easy to say that Warren doesn’t fit because he doesn’t bring much more than scoring to the team. Judging Warren in a vacuum, however, makes this a more complex issue.

Does it matter that his best stretch came in the heart of December, when Phoenix went 4-2 as he scored from 23 to 30 points over a six-game stretch?

To ask what the Suns should value overlooks the fact that, quite simply, they need players — point blank. Warren is certainly that.

We don’t need to go deep into what he’s good at, because he’s been that same reliable scorer since he entered the league out of N.C. State.

Warren is one of the NBA’s most unorthodox, snaking his way into the paint and using his size to get off floaters with enough touch that you want to pronounce it touché.

Here he is catching it on the weakside, on the move, against center Mason Plumlee. A few dribbles, a sidestep off his off-foot and a floater over the top end in a bucket.

But what made Warren so good in the first year under Igor Kokoskov was his three-point shot. Well, part of it was that.

Before the season, Warren said he cleaned up his mechanics, attempting to eliminate extra leg and lower body motion on his jumper. The twisting motion appeared at points, but it was out of Warren’s shot enough, especially set shots from three, to make a huge difference.

It worked. Warren took 4.8 threes per 36 minutes compared to only 1.5 attempts a year prior, hitting 43% to just 22% in 2017-18.

Warren’s true shooting percentage, which accounts for threes and free throws, jumped from 54% last season to a career-high 58% in 2018-19.

He not only eliminated the body motion. He eliminated attempts altogether from 16 feet to the three-point line. Warren had 35 attempts in that long two-point range all season long (5% of this total attempts) compared to 177 the year before (17% of all attempts), according to Basketball-Reference.com.

There’s no doubt Warren can score.

However, whether he’s plateaued elsewhere has maybe dampened any thought of his ultimate impact or trade value improving.

Warren’s rebounding rate of 7.1% this season was a career worst, despite the fact he played heavily as a power forward for the undersized Suns. His on-ball defense is passable — the forward’s lighting-fast hands often lead to steals — but he’s not much of an impact athlete even when his weakside help defense is on a string.

How good of a defender can he be without elite athleticism that players like Jackson and Oubre bring to the table?

Offensively, maybe Warren is close to topping out. Still, he can make easy reads and in moments even threatened defenses enough to earn doubles or overreaction by help defenses. Then he had no choice but to make the pass to the open player.

And when Warren didn’t pass, it’s hard to devalue his tunnel vision considering his own efficiency.

Still, he’s recorded five or more assists just four times in his five seasons.

That Warren went into last offseason with the explicit goal of adding a three-point jumper and came back blowing the Suns away with results adds to the belief that maybe, heading into his sixth season, he could make another monumental shift toward becoming a more well-rounded player.

There’s no doubt Warren is a quiet but fiery competitor who loves the game and wants to improve.

“He wanted to be on the court. He loves to play basketball,” said Suns veteran Jamal Crawford. “He watches basketball all the time. He’s a hoops junkie. He’s another one. He studies the game.

“I was shocked by that from him because he’s looked at as just a scorer. He knows how to make plays, he knows right reads, he knows what makes teams tick.”

The Suns found an identity after the trade deadline. Oubre Jr., Bridges and Jackson gave them a set of switchy wings who bugged opponents and supplemented the offensive strengths of Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.

Whether Warren can find it in his own skillset to adapt toward making his style tick in sync with the rest of his Phoenix teammates is a matter only he can dictate. What he can’t control is again being in that familiar limbo, where his injury history with so many moving parts around him could put his future on the Suns in doubt.

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