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What the Phoenix Suns can expect from the return of T.J. Warren

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
February 11, 2023

Kevin Durant is all anyone in the Valley can talk about, and rightfully so: The Phoenix Suns may have just swung the biggest, riskiest and most dramatic deal in NBA Trade Deadline history. But as the focus shifts to winning that long-awaited title, the other minor piece coming back to Phoenix, T.J. Warren, shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle.

That’s not only because Tony Buckets’ return can help the Suns, but also because he’s alarmingly important to their wing depth after shipping off Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson. There’s still a few worthy candidates on the buyout market, but the Suns are going to lean more heavily on this familiar face than people realize.

“T.J. is a natural leader whose work ethic and commitment to getting better every day make him an important addition to the team as he returns to the Valley,” new owner Mat Ishbia said in a statement. “Phoenix will be one of the best organizations in all of sports and we are so excited to start our journey with this incredibly dynamic team.”

Warren is making an unexpected return after spending his first five seasons in the Valley. The Suns’ 14th overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft averaged 14.4 points per game on 49.7 percent shooting over 261 games in Phoenix, but they only won 39 games in his first season, and then failed to win more than 24 games in any season over the next four years.

Now, he heads back to his old stomping grounds, rejoining Devin Booker while flanked by one of the 10-15 greatest players of all time.


“We are elated to welcome Kevin and T.J. to the Valley,” general manager James Jones said in a statement. “Both players are dynamic scorers and fierce competitors who compete with intensity night in and night out. We’re excited to see the added value they will contribute to our team.”

The question is what the 29-year-old bucket-getter will be able to provide on a team with title aspirations. Much like his time in Phoenix, Warren has battled injury problems over the last few years. His first game for the Brooklyn Nets this season came nearly two years after his last game. Just months after becoming an NBA Bubble legend with the Indiana Pacers in 2020, Warren underwent surgery to repair a small left navicular stress fracture on Jan. 4, 2021.

He wouldn’t play again until Dec. 2, 2022, this time on a veteran minimum contract with the Nets.

“Being off for two years, I really got to look myself in the mirror and really just sit back and observe so much,” Warren said. “I worked so hard to get back to this point, and it definitely feels good to be back playing the game I love, coming back in December. So it’s been great, man. I’m just looking forward to being back here and just keep building.”

So much has changed for Warren since the Suns traded him to Indiana for cash considerations. Over the course of three years, he went from one of the Pacers’ best scorers in a career year to injury-struck to trying to prove he still belongs in the league. We’ve only got 26 games to examine from his Brooklyn tenure, which means he hasn’t had much time to shake off the rust from missing nearly two years of basketball.

But just like we did with Darius Bazley on Friday, it’s time to take a look at what T.J. Warren has to offer.

T.J. Warren is still the same Tony Buckets

Between Booker, KD, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton, the Suns have a positively stacked core four. The obvious question is who will round out their starting five.

Bazley’s defense is intriguing, but his youth, the fact that he’s the new guy, and his inability to carve out a role with the Oklahoma City Thunder work against his odds of cracking the starting lineup. Torrey Craig is the most likely in-house candidate, while Josh Okogie represents the next-best bet thanks to his point-of-attack defense.

T.J. Warren sliding into that open starting job would make Phoenix’s offense even more unstoppable, but given his natural abilities as a born bucket-getter, the Suns are better off keeping him in the same type of bench role he’s occupied with the Nets this season.

And for those wondering: Yes, Tony Buckets still lives up to his nickname.

“The thing that I’ve always saw with him is his ability to just get a bucket,” coach Monty Williams said. “He can score the ball, and he’s got size. Even in the game we played against him in Brooklyn, when he touched the ball, you just kinda knew you were in trouble. And he can score in a number of ways.”

Although he’s only averaging 9.5 points per game this season, he’s doing it in just 18.8 minutes a night, all while shooting 51 percent from the floor. He does very little else on the stat sheet, posting just 2.8 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game — more or less on par with his career averages.

But even after being away from the game for 23 months, the guy who averaged 31.0 points per game on 57.8 percent shooting in the bubble is still very much alive. He won’t be playing nearly enough to put up those types of numbers, or even the numbers he put up in Indiana before his breakout moment, but he’s still got the tools to be an impactful sixth man.

On a team of midrange masters, T.J. Warren will fit right in. Although he’s shooting a staggering 78.4 percent at the rim, which ranks in the league’s 96th percentile, he doesn’t get there often, placing in just the 31st percentile in shots at the rim per 75 possessions.

What he does do well — like always! — is get buckets from the midrange.

According to Cleaning The Glass, Warren takes 40 percent of his shots from the short midrange (4-14 feet away from the basket), which ranks in the 100th percentile at his position. He’s making 46 percent of those shots, which ranks in the 81st percentile.

He also takes 16 percent of his shots from the long midrange (14+ feet inside the 3-point line), ranking in the 89th percentile, and he makes a staggering 55 percent of those looks, which ranks in the 93rd percentile.

His handle is a bit rusty, but he can still get to his spots on pull-ups off the dribble, turnaround jumpers and stop-and-pops on drives when he anticipates a contest at the rim. Suns fans will recognize Warren’s eerily precise floater, a shot he’s hit at a 45.7 percent clip this season.

All in all, the Suns are getting a guy who ranks in the 99th percentile for how many shots he takes in the midrange (55 percent of them) and the 91st percentile for how many shots he makes in the midrange (49 percent).

That skill-set and continued ability to get his shot off in a pinch makes him a great bailout option for the second unit and in late-clock situations. His tendency of driving, creating contact and throwing up off-balance jumpers will lead to some vintage “No no no no YES!” shots at times, but it’s hard to argue with the results.

Can Warren space the floor again?

Warren’s midrange prowess puts him in the same company as middy masters like Booker, CP3, KD and even DA, but that’s the exact reason he’s better-suited for a bench role: Having that much overlap would make him a tad superfluous in this starting five.

With the second unit, having another guy who can create from those spots is a boon. But come playoff time, his ability to stay in the rotation will depend on his defense and his 3-point shot living up to his ability to put the ball in the hole.

“I think for us, if you can do that but also play within the environments that we create in 0.5 on the offensive side, and then have the defensive versatility because we switch a lot, if I had to pinpoint a couple of areas that we’d need him to help us out with, that would be it,” Williams said.

Defensively, Warren checks out as…”eh.” Neither good nor bad, Warren will have to prove he still has enough athleticism, wit and dedication to stay engaged as part of a top-10 defense. But since that’s typically been the question for his entire career to this point, the 3-point conundrum is a more interesting one.

For his first four years in Phoenix, the only knock on Warren’s offensive repertoire was his lack of a 3-point shot. He wouldn’t take them, averaging just 1.3 attempts per game over that stretch, and he wouldn’t make them, converting at a 28.3 percent clip.

But then came the revelation: In his final season with the Suns, Warren started taking 4.2 long range attempts a night and knocked down 42.8 percent of them. It carried over to Indiana the following season, where he made 40.3 percent of his 3.4 attempts per game.

So far this season, he’s looked more like the early Tony Buckets, shooting just 33.3 percent from deep. Fortunately, it’s been on limited volume, since he’s only taken 48 attempts in his 26 appearances.

Curiously enough, Warren has been lights out on above-the-break 3s, which are the harder type of long range shot. He’s making 38.7 percent of those looks, going 12-for-31. A glance at the film shows why: When he fully loads up his release, uses his legs, doesn’t rush his form and holds the follow-through, he looks like the guy who worked incredibly hard to implement the 3-ball into his game:

What’s strange is how poorly he’s shot the ball from the corners, which are supposed to yield the higher percentages since they’re closer to the basket. Warren has made only 23.5 percent of his corner 3s, going 4-for-17.

It’s a baffling reversal of the efficiency one would expect, especially since he shot 43.8 percent from the corners and 31.6 percent above the break during his last full season in Indiana.

Combing through his 3-pointers this season, it almost seems like Warren is too antsy when he gets an opening from the corner. When that quick, short-armed release creeps into his follow-through, the ball travels with more velocity and less arch or rotation, leaving it to hurtle towards the basket and clang off the iron.

Whether it’s because he’s rushing his mechanics, defenders are too close and contesting hard, or both, Warren flinging a 3-ball and then hopping up and down is typically a bad sign:

The good news is, playing on a Suns team with so many weapons will free Warren up for more wide-open looks. That’s reassuring, since he’s been pretty efficient when he has the time and self-discipline to go through his full shot motion. Getting his legs back under him has likely been a challenge after missing two years of hoops, and 26 games isn’t nearly enough time to polish all the rust off.

“Just being aggressive, taking pressure off Book and KD and CP and all those guys,” Warren said of what he can contribute to this Suns team. “Just trying to be that consistent weapon. Just be myself and just continue to work my way back. It’s hard to make up two years in two months, but I’m still continuing to get that feel back, mentally and physically. So it’s all going in the right direction.”

The chances of Monty Williams keeping him on the floor come playoff time depend on Warren being able to do so. Health may be the biggest factor there, since Warren missed a combined 110 games over his first four seasons in the Valley before suffering the stress fracture in Indy that zapped the trajectory of his career.

Even so, the Suns don’t need him to be a starter like his first stint in Phoenix, and they may not even have use for him beyond this playoff run, given that his $2.6 million contract expires this summer. The Suns aren’t depending on his durability for the next few years; they just need him to last for another 3-4 months.

“I know it’s kinda weird to get traded from a team and then be back there in a matter or two or three years, so we’re just gonna try to figure out how or if we can incorporate all of these guys into the rotation,” Williams said. “We’ll see how it works, but he does have a skill-set that every team needs: He can put the ball in the hole.”

If T.J. Warren can provide that midrange shot-making ability and even approach the 40 percent 3-point marksmanship he had prior to his foot injury, he’ll be a useful bench weapon that keeps Phoenix’s high-powered offense humming with or without the starters.

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