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Suns forward T.J. Warren’s breakout season has begun

Phoenix Suns forward T.J. Warren (12) tries to get off a shot as Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016, in Phoenix. The Warriors defeated the Suns 106-100. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

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Starting shooting guard this, question marks at center that. Roles, family, culture, defensive ranks, 30 threes.

There were plenty of storylines heading into the regular season for the Phoenix Suns, but T.J. Warren’s potential first full season of playing time one of them was not.

Warren, the No. 14 pick in 2014, played in only 87 games for his first two seasons. Year one was a result of the rookie trying to find a role on the team, while year two included a promising start to a potential breakout season before Warren required a season-ending foot surgery.

The 23-year-old is an excellent example of how hard work can pay off for players who may not jump the highest or be the fastest at the draft combine. A quick look at his college highlights gives a lasting impression of how much Warren has grown moving around the court. He now moves at least a step or two quicker, is much stronger, has a tighter handle and has improved his vertical a good amount.

Now in his third season under NBA development, Warren has shown off those improvements early in the season to the tune of a 30-point showcase in Oklahoma City and another 26 points against the Warriors when he was primarily matched up against either Draymond Green or Kevin Durant, two of the premier defenders at small forward in the NBA.

Through five games, he’s averaging 22.4 points on 51 percent shooting.

When Warren was drafted, there weren’t many doubts about his scoring ability. The consensus was that he would be able to use his phenomenal touch around 16 feet and in to score in the halfcourt while being remarkably efficient. For his NBA career, Warren is shooting an unbelievable 51 percent, an incredible feat for a perimeter-oriented player.

This has translated well to the pro level and is a part of Warren’s game that shined through in those two performances.

Combining this part of his game with a couple of other signature attributes turned Warren into a lottery pick.

With the developments athletically, Warren has become an even better finisher around the rim and is seemingly automatic in transition.

He’s a smart player who works his tail off on the offensive glass, resulting in some nice back cuts and extra points to pad his tally.

The concern was what he would do outside of the midrange on both ends of the floor.

Despite having the consistency in efficiency, Warren couldn’t shoot from deep in college. With a motion to this shot that was a mix between jerky and mechanical, Warren shot 27 percent on 116 attempts in his sophomore year at North Carolina State.

The end goal for Warren was to be a somewhat reliable bet on wide-open corner threes, similar to what P.J. Tucker has done in the past couple of years.

In his 47 games last season, Warren shot 40 percent on 1.5 attempts per game. Even with some regression to the mean in a full season, that’s tremendous progress from his initial scouting report.

What Warren has shown this season, however, is that when he’s in rhythm, his precision in the midrange area can extend further out.

The difference in how smooth the jumper looks three years later is night and day. Warren doesn’t look uncomfortable in the slightest in catch-and-shoot situations and pull-ups, transitioning the rhythm in his normal offensive game to his deeper jumpers.

That’s an extremely dangerous element he’s added if it shows consistency over the course of this season, because it will set up even more drives and finishes in the midrange area.

While his quickness is up, Warren still has a ways to go as a defender. Some of his relentless traits on offense would seemingly translate to someone who competes defensively, but that wasn’t the case in his first two seasons.

At times this season, the energy is there, and when the team defense is on point, he can force some bad looks.

That’s crucial when he’s starting with Devin Booker, who struggles far more than Warren on that end. If he plays like this throughout the season on the ball, that’s significant progress.

Other times, though, we’ve seen holes in Warren’s focus.

When it comes to playing time, living with mistakes like the above might lose a player a rotation spot — or even a roster spot in the case of Archie Goodwin, who is very one-dimensional on the offensive end. That’s far from the case for Warren, who is looking like one of the best offensive players on the team and trending towards becoming an all-around scoring machine.

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