As the NBA’s regular season begins to fade into the summer months, playoff-bound teams have their coordinates set specifically on the month of June, while the other group is forced to plan their vacation spots a bit earlier than they’d hoped. The bottom-of-the-barrel squads are already scrambling in order to rehash what exactly went wrong and what can be done to prevent a repeat performance in 2015-2016.
The sales and marketing staff has already begun to put together next season’s ticket packages. Management, along with the scouting department, has already shifted their focus to the draft and which player can drag their team’s lifeless body out of the lottery. The public relations team is forced to create a pitch that’ll entice fans to show support despite a 20-win season.
While the rest of the organization pines for playoff success, the coaching staff doesn’t necessarily have the luxury of keeping an eye on the future. Instead, coaches essentially stumble into trial-and-error experiments with end-of-rotation players over the last few weeks of the season. Dealing with injuries to star players and jockeying for ping pong balls are just two reasons why veterans end up resting, while the unproven players finally see action. The month of March turns into a workshop for fringe players attempting to put something on film that could keep them in the league.
T.J. Warren, the 14th overall pick of the Phoenix Suns in the 2014 NBA Draft, was never going to be a player who needed to rely heavily on specific circumstances in order to receive crucial playing time as a rookie. Warren is one of the few rookies or sophomores who have rightfully earned their time on the court.
Since February 25th, Warren is playing 18.5 minutes per game in 16 games while scoring 8.7 points per game on 63.7 percent shooting from the field. Until the last week of February, he had appeared in just 18 games for the Suns while spending most of his time with the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA’s D-League. Now, Coach Hornacek is giving him chunks of minutes to work with and praised the rookie’s scoring ability to the media this week, even adding “Yeah, he’ll be a starter in this league.”
Warren was drafted with the hopes that his next-level scoring would translate to the big leagues, and he hasn’t done anything to refute that potential. Similar to his time at N.C. State, he’s doing the majority of his scoring in the paint or from mid-range. After Thursday night’s 17-point performance against the Warriors in which he received a bulk of the fourth-quarter minutes, 73.5 percent of his attempts have come within eight feet of the hoop. His recent shot chart complements the eye test, proving his remarkable touch around the basket:
That ability serves as a saving grace while he attempts to construct a three-point shot. Offensively, Warren’s outside shot has emerged as his most glaring weakness, as he has hit on just 4-of-17 attempts from beyond the arc. Despite the inefficiencies away from the basket, his stocky build makes it easier for him to get to his favorite spots on the floor. While these are areas usually inhabited by taller players, Warren knows how to use his body as leverage in order to get shots off from different angles. He has put in 20-of-31 shots with a defender within two feet of him and 30-of-49 with a defender within two to four feet of him, per NBA.com. His last two buckets against Golden State are prime examples of the collection of shots he has around the paint:
Notice who he’s playing against. He’s hitting these shots against Golden State’s starters in a close game with under two minutes left:
Warren’s biggest asset as a basketball player is his ability to play off the ball. Since his added playing time, he has displayed instincts on the offensive end that are surely advanced for his age. He continually finds holes around the rim, particularly along the baseline where Eric Bledsoe has found him on numerous occasions. Despite average speed and a lack of off-the-bounce explosiveness, it’s his intelligence that causes him to be so effective in transition as well. He has been great at spacing out to the wing and running with the smaller lineups that Phoenix utilizes. It’s not easy to find top-tier scorers who can play without the ball in their hands, and Warren has opened the door to the possibility of filling that role going forward.
Only 21 years old, Warren’s NBA-ready body and advanced skill set as a scorer would have allowed him to flourish in just about any situation. But just like anything else in basketball, personal development is never done alone. It would be a disservice to overlook the impact that Hornacek has had on Warren. The vote of confidence that Warren received this week will have a far-reaching impact on his career. Not only will he continue to add building blocks to his offensive prowess, but his weaknesses on the defensive end should be addressed as well.
The strides that are made from year one to year two can re-route a player’s course in a number of different ways. For Warren, he can take the backing from his coach and use it as a weapon to get better every single day this offseason. Coach Hornacek knew exactly what he had in Warren, decided to double down, and is hoping to come away with a maximized profit for next season.