After terrific start to season, Suns’ T.J. Warren trying yet again to find right role
PHOENIX — Suns fans had been clamoring about the potential of 23-year-old small forward T.J. Warren, seeing more than an efficient scorer who had a habit of making energy plays offensively, whether it was crashing the offensive glass or making backdoor cuts.
Going through the usual struggles of fighting for a role as a rookie two seasons ago after being selected 14th in the 2014 draft, Warren was looking at his first full season of significant contribution last year before foot surgery ended his second season 47 games in.
Still, fans had high expectations for Warren, and what he showed them at the beginning of this season proved they were right to be hopeful.
His breakout season was in full effect, and while not viewed as an elite young player in the same ways as teammate Devin Booker, Warren’s scoring numbers were rare in his first 11 games.
Averaging 20 points per game and shooting 47.4 percent from the field on 17.3 attempts per game, Warren — had he held the numbers — would have become the 24th player in the last 15 seasons to average at least 19 points per game while shooting at least 45 percent from the field on 15 attempts per game or more in one of their first three NBA seasons, according to Basketball Reference.
With the exception of a few out of place, yet productive players like Michael Beasley, Rudy Gay and Ben Gordon, that puts Warren in the company of some of the best players of this generation.
Now, Warren may not reach that level, but as someone drafted to be a productive scorer, he was meeting the expectations and then some.
What happened next, however, put a halt to a season that would put him on the map.
On Nov. 23, the Suns ruled Warren out indefinitely with a minor head injury. Speculation began as to how severe the injury was, when it occurred and so on. Warren himself couldn’t elaborate on the injury this Tuesday after practice but assured that everything is resolved.
After excelling in the first 11 games of the year, Warren played only 18 minutes against the Nuggets on Nov. 16, nine minutes in Indiana on Nov. 18 and then went on to miss the next 13 games.
Clearly not the same player, in his first 11 games back from injury, Warren averaged 10.3 points per game on 40.9 percent shooting.
“You think you’re gonna get it back overnight, and you take a month off,” Warren said of the break.
It would take Warren a while to recover, and there was also a different dynamic in the offense when he came back.
Eric Bledsoe and Booker took complete control of the offense. In those first 11 games of the season, Warren was second to Booker’s 17.8 field goal attempts per game with 17.3, while Bledsoe was in third at 13.5.
For the games Warren missed, Bledsoe’s attempts jumped all the way up to 18.5, so Warren had to adjust. He took a backseat as much when Bledsoe put together a scintillating January.
“Bled and Book, they had their combination going, so it was just kind of hard to just, trying to figure out how I can be effective [here] and there,” Warren said.
From his return in mid-December to the end of February, his shot attempts were down to 10.4 a game.
When asked about the ever-changing scenery of ball-dominant players on his team since he was drafted, Warren spoke about finding other ways to contribute, which has shown in his game.
“You gotta just try to find your way, find your niche in that situation,” Warren said. “I’m good just trying to be effective, (finding) ways of just moving off the ball.”
While trying to settle back into his role as the secondary scorer behind Booker since Bledsoe was shut down, Warren’s been finding that niche as a tremendous offensive rebounder.
Head coach Earl Watson after practice Tuesday said Warren’s IQ rebounding is, “at an all-time high level.”
Warren averaged 2.9 offensive boards a game in March, the most on the team and the most by a perimeter player in the league. On the season, he’s at 1.9, trailing only Tony Allen and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for the top spot as a small forward or guard.
“He’s being aggressive, using his size and his strength, and realizing that he can be pretty physical with his size,” Watson said. “He has great size as a small forward. ”
Warren’s proven that he can be a good rebounder at his position.
“Just wanted to show that I could rebound on both ends of the floor,” said Warren of the uptick this past month.
Through that, Warren has had his best stretch since coming back from that minor head injury, averaging 17.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists on 53.6 percent shooting from the field in March.
“I think he’s better because he’s more well-rounded,” Watson said comparing Warren’s play now to the beginning of the year. “He’s guarding the best guy and he’s rebounding.”
Warren looks to be getting on track, but everything moves fast in the NBA, especially when you’ve only played 62 percent of your possible games near the end of your third season.
The questions that nearly pushed Warren out of the draft lottery, according to a scouting report video on DraftExpress, were his perimeter defense, decision making, shooting mechanics, defensive rebounding and tweener concerns.
If his elite rebounding numbers for a small forward take even a normal dip from this last month, his rebounding will be fine.
The concerns, however, are that Warren looks like he could never be a good defender, shooter or passer.
The latter is basically a given with his individual offensive game yielding 0.9 assists per game for his career. The first two, though, have been up and down and might continue to be for the rest of his career.
His shooting from deep has fallen off since signs earlier in the season suggested his 40 percent mark on 1.5 attempts per game last season was for real. He’s at 25 percent on 1.5 attempts per game this season, a number that could play a small forward off the court on a playoff team.
Warren isn’t a liability defensively, but he’s not a stopper, either. It’s not fair to Warren, but when he’s a potential long-term partner with Booker, who has been very poor defensively to start his career, it’s a problem.
Those weaknesses didn’t matter when Warren was scoring an efficient 20 a game. It does matter if he’s more of the third-option player after the head injury, but given what he’s been through at the beginning of his NBA career, we should wait until the results of next season before concentrating on his flaws.
The problematic nature of that thought, however, is Warren’s contract.
He’s a much better player than both Archie Goodwin and Alex Len, but like the two former first round picks, he’s approaching the last year of his contract before restricted free agency — he is eligible for an extension starting this offseason — with the question marks surrounding his game on draft night still present and accounted for.
Depending on where the Suns pick in June’s draft, there’s also reason to believe they could select a player at Warren’s position, such as Kansas’ Josh Jackson or Duke’s Jayson Tatum.
Warren is a fine NBA player and could still be a very good one, but he and the Suns desperately need a full NBA season out of him to find out where he lands on that spectrum. He sounds like he’s on the same page.
“My goal is to play 82 games,” Warren said of next season. “A full 82, including playoffs.”