Phoenix Suns: T.J. Warren’s career year getting lost in dreary season

Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images
Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images /

The Phoenix Suns are a raging dumpster fire that’s in the news for all the wrong reasons, but T.J. Warren’s best season yet should not be overlooked.

Even with a win Thursday night, the Phoenix Suns own the worst record in the NBA at 5-24. They have the league’s worst point differential (-11.1), third-worst offensive rating (101.3) and fifth-worst defensive rating (112.0) too. They’re even coming off a season in which they finished with the worst record, point differential, offensive and defensive rating in the association.

Suffice it to say, no one is paying attention to the Suns outside of their constant dysfunction, nine-point first quarters and since-rescinded reports about an owner threatening to take the team to Seattle or Las Vegas if the city doesn’t pay for desperately needed renovations to Talking Stick Resort Arena.

The Suns aren’t going anywhere, but that’s hardly a full reprieve for basketball fans in Phoenix. The team is terrible, the season is all but over in December and a franchise-worst eight-year playoff drought will soon extend to nine years. If the surprising Sacramento Kings sneak into the Western Conference playoffs, the Suns will own the longest active drought in the association.

Entire books could be filled with the shortcomings of this organization over the last year and a half, let alone the last eight years. Lost in all this constant misery, however, is the evolution of T.J. Warren, a fifth-year wing who’s putting together a career year in an oh-so-typically quiet fashion.

Thursday night against the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix notched its first win of the year sans Devin Booker thanks to Warren’s season-high 30 points. He only chipped in three rebounds and three assists, but was absurdly efficient, going 11-for-17 from the field, 3-for-4 from 3-point range and 5-for-6 from the free throw line.

"“We know who T.J. is, T.J. is instant offense,” head coach Igor Kokoskov said. “His talent and ability to score is just extraordinary.”"

Basically, Thursday’s performance was an exaggerated version of T.J. Warren’s 2018-19 season as a whole: impressive scoring, but probably overlooked because the Suns are terrible and the game’s start time was 10:30 p.m. ET. The only major differences were his higher-than-usual point total and the fact that Phoenix won a basketball game for the first time in 11 tries.

On the year, Tony Buckets is averaging 18.0 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, which aren’t career highs in either category. He only averages 1.3 assists to 1.1 turnovers per game, and outside of scoring, he really doesn’t do much.

However, the remarkable change in Warren’s game has come with the kinds of shots he’s taking, and how efficient he’s been in taking them.

For starters, Warren’s 18.0 points per game are coming in a mere 29.2 minutes per game. Extrapolated over 36 minutes, he’d be averaging 22.2 points, which would be a career high in both points per game and points per 36 minutes. More importantly, he may have added a legitimate 3-point shot to his arsenal.

Tony Buckets was always pegged as a master of the mid-range and a crafty cutter who could convert tough looks around the basket, but being able to spread the floor to 3-point range was his Achilles heel on offense.

"“I had a habit of turning my body, kicking my feet when I land,” Warren said. “I just wanted to go straight up and straight down.”"

After spending the summer hoisting “at least 300-400” triples every day and refining his stroke, that’s not an issue anymore — both in his ability and his confidence to let it fly.

Over the first four years of his NBA career, Warren took 279 total 3-pointers. Even taking out the six games he’s missed so far in 2018-19 due to injury, if he continues at his current rate of 3.9 per game, he’ll shatter that total this season alone, with about 296 attempted 3s.

Warren’s willingness to shoot with his tweaked long range release is translating into a dangerously efficient player. Not only is he shooting 52.1 percent from the field, but he’s knocking down 44.4 percent of his 3s and converting 85.5 percent of his free throws. Aside from his rookie year where he played very limited minutes, those are all career highs.

Despite being renowned for his mid-range ability, Warren taking a smaller percentage of his shots from the 10-16 feet range (15 percent) than he has since his rookie year (12.6 percent). His percentage of attempts from 16 feet to inside the 3-point line (6.5 percent) is a career low too. Now, he’s taking a career-high 29.3 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.

Because of this renewed focus on either operating near the basket or taking quality looks from the 3-point line, his career-high 61.8 true shooting percentage puts him in a rarified air among the league’s most efficient scorers.

According to Basketball-Reference, the only players in the league averaging at least 18 points and 3.9 3-point attempts per game with a true shooting percentage of 61 percent are Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron JamesJames Harden, Danilo Gallinari and T.J. Warren.

Four of those players have accounted for eight of the last 10 MVP awards. The other, Gallo, is enjoying a vintage throwback season as perhaps the second-best player on a surprising 17-11 Los Angeles Clippers team.

Just over a year ago, everyone thought Warren was on the way out. He had finished the 2017-18 season as injury-riddled as ever, while Josh Jackson — the supposed two-way wing of the future — showed signs of becoming an alpha dog. Warren’s taken aback reaction to a suggested sixth man role was less than optimal too.

The drafting of Mikal Bridges and signing of Trevor Ariza felt like the writing on the wall, only if that writing literally spelled out “He gone.”

Jackson’s overwhelmingly sporadic play factors into this complete situational turnaround, as does the likelihood of an Ariza trade, but even without lockdown defense, Warren has quickly won back his starting job and ensured his importance won’t go unnoticed by the Suns.

Unfortunately for him, he’ll receive no such attention outside the Valley. He plays for the worst team in the league, and while his numbers aren’t empty production or garbage time stats, they feel a lot less wholesome coming in games that are sometimes decided by halftime.

At the end of the day, he’ll continue to be viewed by the vast majority as a mid-range gunner with an emerging 3-ball, because, well, he still has a knack for making ridiculous shots from that area of the floor that make people on media row just laugh and shake their heads.

He’s not a great defender or playmaker, and he doesn’t get to the foul line often enough (2.7 attempts per game) for someone with his finishing ability (60.8 percent, above the league average of 57.9 percent). As long as the Suns are entrenched in chaos and double-digit blowouts, no one will be paying T.J. Warren much attention, let alone casting any Most Improved Player votes his way.

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Even so, the Phoenix Suns are getting a glimpse of a wing many thought would be traded over the summer as he entered year one of his four-year, $50 million contract. What they’re seeing is not only showing his value’s at an all-time high, but also reaffirming just how underrated he is league-wide … and in terms of Phoenix’s rebuild in general.