Phoenix Suns: T.J. Warren Making Early Case For Most Improved Player

T.J. Warren has been the Phoenix Suns’ best player early on in the 2016-17 NBA season. Is he a legitimate candidate for the league’s Most Improved Player of the Year Award?

The Phoenix Suns are a young team mired in an ongoing rebuild, so it’s no surprise they’ve started off the 2016-17 NBA season with a 1-4 record.

Beyond the win-loss column, however, there’s hope. Hope in the form of 20-year-old phenom Devin Booker, not to mention three promising young rookies — Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Tyler Ulis — who should contribute to the franchise’s long, winding path back to prominence.

Through the first five games of the season, however, the Suns’ best player has not been the young franchise cornerstone in Booker, nor has it been the team’s best player over the last few years in Eric Bledsoe; it’s been the forgotten man, T.J. Warren.

When naming off the prospects that make up the Suns’ bright future, Booker and the rookies usually come to mind first. Similarly, when naming the team’s current assets and well-established veterans, guys like Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley are mentioned first.

Coming off a season-ending foot injury, Warren has fallen somewhere in the middle, on the far end of both spectrums — not proven enough to be considered a current asset, but not possessing enough upside, mystery or intrigue to be listed as a foundational piece yet either.

Warren was on the verge of a breakout sophomore season in 2015-16, averaging 11.0 points per game on .501/.400/.703 shooting splits, but was limited to just 47 games due to injury.

Now he’s back, quickly proving why so many people were excited about him at this time last year and outplaying even Devin Booker as the young shooting guard deals with a nagging toe injury that’s gotten him off to a slow start.

“He’s a great scorer,” Booker said after Warren scored 26 points against the Golden State Warriors. “I don’t think a lot of people in the NBA know that, but they’re figuring it out really quick. If I can get on the same page with him and we can both get it going, I think we’re gonna be really dangerous.”

With P.J. Tucker recovering from his back injury, Warren got his opening in the starting rotation. He hasn’t disappointed, averaging 22.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game and holding onto his starting job even with Tucker back at full strength.

Five games is a small sample size, but Warren currently ranks first on the team in scoring, first in steals and second in rebounds. He’s shooting 50.6 percent from the floor, and though his 30 percent shooting from beyond the arc leaves something to be desired, he’s making 86.4 percent of his 4.4 free throw attempts per game.

In the team’s season opener, Warren sputtered to 14 points on 14 shots, but the rest of the team laid an egg as well. The third-year wing made up for it on the road against the Oklahoma City Thunder, setting a new career-high in scoring with 30 points on 13-of-18 shooting, along with nine rebounds and three steals.

He followed that up with 26 points and six rebounds on 10-of-21 shooting against the Warriors. When Warren missed a shot in the game’s final minute that might have cut Golden State’s lead to two and given the Suns a last-ditch shot at the upset, head coach Earl Watson wasn’t discouraged.

“Devin Booker last game had a chance to win the game, T.J. Warren had a chance to cut us to two,” he said. “These guys have to learn how to win games, and they need an opportunity to fail in order to be great. So we love the position that we’re in, we have a chance every night, and eventually those Ls will turn into Ws.”

The Suns struggled against the Los Angeles Clippers, but that first W finally came Wednesday night, when Warren bounced back again with a huge performance in the team’s narrow victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.

In a thrilling overtime game that pretty much no one watched with Game 7 of the World Series on, it was Alex Len‘s 18 points, six rebounds and three blocks of the bench that grounded the Suns early on. Then it was Eric Bledsoe’s clutch bucket at the end of regulation and game-winning three-pointer in overtime that propelled Phoenix to victory.

Sprinkled in throughout the game, however, was Warren’s under-the-radar shot-making. The 23-year-old small forward put up a team-high 27 points, seven rebounds and two steals on 11-of-22 shooting from the floor.

He scored nine of his points in the final 4:46 of the fourth quarter, including a big basket that put the Suns up one with 40 seconds to play — on a play Watson drew up for him.

In five games this season, Warren has scored 25+ points three times…after only doing so twice in his entire career entering the 2016-17 campaign. He’s doubled his points per game from last year, his five straight games of scoring in double figures are the longest single-season streak of his career, and it doesn’t look like the reliance on his shot-making is going to end anytime soon.

While the Suns look improved on the defensive end, Watson’s offense depends far too much on individual creation, particularly in iso-sets once the offense breaks down following an uninspired pick-and-roll or a couple of meaningless swings of the ball around the perimeter.

Warren, however, has thrived in the chaos, putting his innate ability to put the ball in the hole to good use.

Watson likened his game to Paul Pierce‘s after the Warriors loss, citing their big bodies, midrange games and sneaky athleticism.

According to Jared Dudley, there’s another former NBA great that seems more fitting for Warren’s game, but the real question for him is whether Warren can become even more than just an unconventional but effective scorer.

“T.J. has a unique game where his midrange is kind of like an Antawn Jamison in the sense like he has these quirky shots he can score in unique ways down there in the middle of that paint and the free throw line,” Dudley said. “The next thing of his growth that he has to be able to do is: He’s gonna get a lot of shots. Is he gonna make other guys better?

“That’s something I’ve worked on with him is him driving and getting two defenders, Tyson [Chandler] for lobs, myself for threes. He’s one of our best scorers so we know he can do that, we know he’s effective, just now it’s the next part of his game.”

T.J. Warren is an efficient midrange scorer. He knows how to finish around the basket, he’s steadily fine-tuning his three-point shot and his work on the defensive end deserves recognition too, with Warren guarding guys like Kawhi Leonard, Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gay and Kevin Durant since the start of preseason.

If he can take the next step to being a well-rounded player by getting his teammates more involved and doing more than just putting up empty numbers on a losing team, the consistency he’s brought to the scoring column — with our without Booker returning to form — shouldn’t go unnoticed in the voting for Most Improved Player of the Year.