Suns’ T.J. Warren starting to get his legs back under him

Jan 23, 2017, 7:06 PM

Phoenix Suns forward T.J. Warren (12) tries to get off a shot as Golden State Warriors forward Dray...

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)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

With two rookies drafted in the top 10 and a league-wide intrigue in Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns third-year forward T.J. Warren seems to fly a bit under the radar.

After missing much of last season with a broken foot and 13 games this season due to a head injury, his name has not been mentioned as much in discussions of the Suns’ young core.

He started off hot, averaging 18.7 points and 4.8 rebounds per game while shooting around 50 percent from the floor before getting hurt. When he came back, he struggled in his first couple games, averaging only 9.8 points in December on 37 percent shooting.

Recently, he’s come back into form.

In January, Warren is averaging 11.9 points on 55 percent shooting, which is progress. However, he’s also shooting just 18 percent from three-point range after hitting around 30 percent in the previous three months. His rebounds per game have also fallen in January, from 3.6 in December to 2.9.

It certainly looks like Warren is feeling more like himself. He had a rough weekend in New York and Toronto, putting up a total of eight points on 4-of-12 shooting, but in the previous three games, he put up double figures while shooting 60 percent or better.

One of Warren’s best attributes is that for a third-year player, he has very good positioning and timing when working in the offense. He’s very aware of when he’s being ignored on a possession, and he knows how to punish defenses who let him sneak around.

This makes Warren an extremely valuable transition player. When Eric Bledsoe attacks the rim here, all eyes turn to him, and Warren puts himself in the right spot to receive the pass.

Warren does the little things right here. He hustles when he sees the play forming but then slows his pace so he can be where Bledsoe needs him to be. Then he’s able to lift the bounce pass up in one fluid motion to get it over Rudy Gobert.

Warren also has an arsenal of nifty moves that help him turn a inch of space into much more when attacking the rim, allowing him to show up even the best in the NBA.

Warren’s talent for ducking in around plays and carefully placing his shots helps him shoot 62.5 percent in transition. However, he can do many of the same things in halfcourt plays.

Warren sees the lane created as the San Antonio defense tries to reorganize after the offensive board and strolls right into wide open space. Then he releases before Pau Gasol even has time to get close.

The vision combined with the shooting ability make Warren hard to guard. For a young player he reads the game well, and he has the ball control to overcome the desperate reaction from the closest defender.

Phoenix has found creative ways to use Warren in the halfcourt. They hide him in the corner and bring him out when the defense isn’t really prepared to deal with him. When the Suns execute on pick-and-roll, it often requires the corner defender to help at the rim. Warren makes that a much more punishing decision.

Warren catches his man frozen and preparing for Bledsoe’s attack, and immediately goes with him in lockstep towards the rim. The pair have developed good chemistry when putting pressure on the rim. Bledsoe has assisted Warren on 45 of his baskets, by far the most of any of Warren’s teammates.

Even with the ball out of Bledsoe’s hands, the Suns can help get Warren looks he likes when they execute their sets. Here, the Suns have Tyson Chandler operating the play and set two screens. Everything is optimized to give Warren at least a sliver of space.

While Warren’s inside game is coming back to him, his outside shooting touch has yet to return. He’s never been a sniper from deep, but shot 40 percent on 1.5 attempts per game last season.

The problem is that Warren’s form is very loose. When he launches a shot, he’s not doing it in a very consistent or normalized way.

Here, Warren finishes one shot with his legs crossed after a good leap. Later on, he finishes with his legs normal but does not get much elevation.

Without a consistent base at the legs and crisp movement in the upper body, it’s become hard for Warren to cash in as a corner shooter. He’s just 7-for-29 on corner threes this season, a place where the Suns seem to want to use him.

For now, it seems like Warren’s outside shot is still in need of work, and it may never get there. In an era where spacing is everything, Warren is a complicated fit if he can’t reliably shoot.

However, his unique style also makes him hard to plan against. His ability to hit crazy shots even when well-defended makes him valuable. Sometimes a team really just needs a guy who, regardless of anything else, can dependably get a bucket.

On the other side of the ball, Warren has been working hard now that he’s in better health. He’s able to fight around screens and is long enough to disrupt opposing guards. He’s in the 84th percentile of defending the pick-and-roll ball handler and allows only 0.6 points per possession, per Synergy Sports.

That said, he still has a lot to learn before he can really be a complete defender. While he’s good at being accountable within the team defense, he’s often tasked with the toughest perimeter assignment and has to take his lumps through those matchups.

With a lot of fluidity in the Suns’ future, and Warren heading into restricted free agency next summer, the next phase of his career is a bit foggy. For now at least, Suns fans can be happy that he’s back and is still baffling defenses on a regular basis.

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