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The T.J. Warren Dilemma

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

The 2014 draft class was loaded and heralded by the media and pundits as being one of the best draft classes ever. With Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid headlining the class, it was easy to why scouts were salivating all over the potential franchise-altering talents.

There are three players who remain very intriguing today, all of whom have little NBA experience after an entire season has passed: Embiid, Julius Randle and T.J. Warren. Embiid sat out his entire rookie season due to a foot injury and is set to miss next year thanks to another surgery. Randle broke his tibia in his NBA debut, and the youngster spent his rookie season rehabbing and helplessly watching the Lakers put together the worst season in franchise history.

Warren, the 14th overall pick, had a less than ideal rookie season, even though he managed to stay healthy for the entirety of it. Coming off an impressive sophomore year at NC State, the 6-8 forward averaged 24.1 points and 7.1 rebounds en route to winning ACC Player of the Year. Demonstrating an elite level ability to score and create his own shot, the 21-year-old finished his rookie campaign with averages of 6.1 points and 2.1 rebounds in 15.4 minutes a game.

The dilemma with Warren isn’t talent or work ethic. It’s simply the roster discombobulation that the Phoenix Suns have been dealing with under Jeff Hornacek. Identity is crucial in the NBA, and the Suns have been stuck in limbo trying to figure out who they are. Not only did the Suns have too many elite guards (a true First World problem), but they had too many forwards, too.

In addition to that, Phoenix has been battling for a playoff berth in the tough Western Conference, although to no avail. These factors make it hard for a rookie to get any share of meaningful minutes, a problem that Warren, Tyler Ennis (who was ultimately traded to the Milwaukee Bucks) and Archie Goodwin all came to face during the regular season.

The departure of Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas opens up a few more shot opportunities to go around, but for this relatively young team, there still is no pecking order firmly established. Goodwin still is buried behind Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, but Warren has a window of opportunity with Marcus Morris off to Detroit. While Warren will still have to win minutes over Markieff Morris and P.J Tucker, he’ll be given his chances early in the season to prove what he’s got.

Warren got most of his minutes in garbage time or late in the season when the Suns had resigned themselves from the playoffs, and he showed that his ability to score in college translated to the NBA. There are so many things about Warren’s offensive game to like, but at the end of the day, he just finds ways to score the basketball. Looking back on the way Warren scored throughout the season, the thing that jumps out is the variety of ways he’s able to put the ball in the basket.

Most players in the NBA have a certain set of skills that they’re elite at, like shooting, finishing at the rim, post-ups, isolation, etc. Warren’s elite skill is his instinct to score the basketball. He’s not an elite shooter or great ball handler, but he’s superb at putting himself in great positions. He’s good at immediately attacking off the catch, getting himself as close to the basket as possible for a short jumper, runner or floater. Rarely does Warren come sprinting off a screen to a set jumper. Rather, he’ll come off the screen, catch and attack. T.J. is also great at moving without the ball, as he scored many of his baskets on wide open layups that were only possible by his off-ball cuts.

The problem with Warren and the Suns is that Phoenix has two ball-dominant players in Bledsoe and Knight, negating Warren’s elite NBA talent. Because Warren’s not a great shooter or defender, it can sometimes be hard for Hornacek to justify playing him meaningful minutes. We all can see what Warren can do in Summer League (21 points per game on nearly 57 percent shooting this year) and college, when he’s one of the featured players on the court, but it’s still a question mark whether he can be a valuable piece for a playoff team. After an entire season of assessing his weaknesses (spot-up shooting, defending), I hope Warren comes into training camp with an agenda to prove.

Warren’s defensive struggles have been due to his effort level, as too many times he refused to sink into a low defensive stance and play sound, fundamental defense. Warren should be incredibly useful on the offensive end even if his jumper doesn’t improve significantly, and if he sets his mind to the defensive end, he could be sharing time with Morris on the first team.

Summer League is hard to gauge for someone in a situation like Warren’s, as he won’t get nearly as many looks as he’s getting presently, but it’s always a good reminder to show what Warren can do best: put the ball into the basket.

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