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It’s simple for Suns forward T.J. Warren: Do you on offense, focus on defense

Dallas Mavericks guard Deron Williams loses the ball as Phoenix Suns forward T.J. Warren defends during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game, Friday, Oct. 14, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

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PHOENIX — The jury remains out on every other first-round draft pick made by Suns general manager Ryan McDonough.

We haven’t logged hardly any video of teens Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender against NBA rotation players. Devin Booker’s ceiling is uncapped to the point we can’t judge the floor. Alex Len and Archie Goodwin, meanwhile, have reached the point where their flaws stick out more than most of their skills.

Evaluating third-year forward T.J. Warren, on the other hand, doesn’t get that complicated.

Asked if the already-efficient scorer could make any changes to improve, Suns head coach Earl Watson made it this simple:

“Just want T.J. to be T.J.” he said. “A lot of these guys, they have great skills. Try not to give them too much because it becomes paralysis from analysis. So play basketball and be aggressive.”

Cliche? Maybe.

But for Warren more than most, there need not be tricks when born-and-bred scoring ability is there. That’s because development of his offensive repertoire could cease this day, and Warren could still become an above-average starting NBA small forward.

Yep, it’s all about the other end of the floor.

Warren has been about as poor an NBA defender as his McDonough-drafted teammates, but when it comes down to it, he fits the physical mold to make strides in his third season. Be it a mix of effort, added strength and familiarity under a new defensive scheme, the opportunity to improve drastically is there.

Even after sitting out part of last season and this summer due to a broken foot, he’s already made strides.

“I think he’s much-improved defensively,” McDonough said on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM’s Burns and Gambo show this week. “We’ve had some difficult matchups at the small forward position (this preseason). I think he did pretty well in those matchups. We know he can score … Really, if he can take that next step defensively — he’s always been above-average I think on the ball, guarding his own man. Where we’ve really seen progress is off the ball, being in his gaps and utilizing weakside help rotations.”

Part of Warren’s steady improvement could be credited to Watson. Part of it might be an effort thing. Mostly, it’s just about experience.

So far, Warren has faced Gordon Hayward and Kawhi Leonard in the preseason and held his own.

“This preseason’s been real beneficial for me,” Warren said Thursday. “Just being back in the game playing, seeing shots go in, seeing my defense improve — that’s what I really want out of it. It’s just experience. Just really being out there, knowing what guys like to do. Just try to interrupt while I’m out there.

“It’s just me being comfortable. Another year here, just me being myself, being acquainted to certain things.”

And this is where the Suns hope the simplicity to Warren’s improvements turn into results.

Warren doesn’t need to hear a motivational speech, doesn’t require a major overhaul and has no reason for an adjustment to how he approaches his role to become a very good player. While advanced statistics might tell the story of his game on both sides of the ball, his natural savvy are what drew Phoenix’s interest when he left N.C. State.

In terms of win shares per 48 minutes (to adjust for all his missed games last year), Warren was the best Sun currently on his rookie contract last year, according to Basketball-Reference. But of his total win shares, 1.7 came on offense to just 0.6 on defense.

By ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus statistic, Warren was a minus-0.38 on offense to minus-2.04 on defense.

In layman’s terms, he’s much better on offense than defense.

T.J. Warren's points per shot by location.

T.J. Warren’s points per shot by location.

Offensively, he already flashes natural instincts, enough to where we should recalibrate Warren’s offensive profile for being more analytic-friendly than his draft scouting report read three summers ago.

In an age ruled by Morey-ball — the philosophy of shooting as many layups and threes as possible to maximize efficiency — Warren seems like the old-school, the anti-analytic player. His mid-range game made him, but as answered by former coach Jeff Hornacek the day after Phoenix drafted Warren, the advanced statistics also tell the story of a very efficient offensive player.

Hornacek said he hoped for all his players to strive for effective field goal shooting percentage — an adjusted figure to account for threes being worth more — of 51 or better. Last season, Warren’s eFG% sat at 53.3 percent, a solid figure for a player of his usage (for reference, Eric Bledsoe’s before his injury was 50.2, while Devin Bookers was 48).

Maybe the most interesting thing that shows Warren has already arrived on offense is the fact that he’s so efficient with an incomplete game.

There are things to appreciate like this: Because Warren’s floater-happy game doesn’t draw many fouls (his free throw rate was only lower than Ronnie Price’s last year), his sub-optimal 70-percent shooting from the foul line wasn’t as harmful.

And while he took just 70 threes in 47 games played in 2015-16, he knocked down a very good 40 percent, or 28 total. A good 37 of those attempts came in the corners — some consider them the best shots in basketball — where he hit an incredible 46.2 percent on the left side and 45.8 on the right.

Asked about his accurate corner three-point shooting, Warren indicated he doesn’t prioritize types of shot or what to emphasize in individual practice from that angle. His attempts just came in the flow of things.

“It’s just me just being confident and me picking and choosing my spots and just getting in rhythm,” Warren said. “You see the ball go in a couple times through the net with a layup, a floater, a midrange, then that expands, working your way in-out.”

That’s the beauty to Warren’s game that, to Watson’s overall philosophy, nobody wants to strike out of balance. For example, the Suns could ask him to sit in the corner even more because he shot it so well last year, but it seems Warren’s offensive game isn’t a thing to micromanaging to that degree. They could push him to get to the foul line more, but that’s not his M.O.

That’s the beauty in the simplicity of what he must do to become a starting-caliber swingman.

He doesn’t turn it over and takes the shots he’s capable of making at the right times. Not hard, right?

Taking the next step isn’t difficult, either. He’s just got to keep up the scoring. And be able to hang with elite NBA wings on defense.


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