A good rule of thumb when it comes to summer league is you should never get too worried about first-year players playing poorly or get too excited about second-year players playing well. Players with experience at the NBA level should be able to dominate those just getting their feet wet as professionals. That’s why, in and of itself, TJ Warren’s first-team All-Summer league performance, where he averaged 18.7 points a game on 54 percent shooting, doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It was just a reminder of what the No. 14 overall pick in the 2014 draft could do after he barely got the chance to play as a rookie for the Phoenix Suns.
As you would expect for a guy drafted on a team that won 48 games the season before, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for Warren. He was behind the Morris Twins and PJ Tucker at the forward spots in the rotation and his remaining minutes were squeezed at both ends, with the Suns playing a lot of three-guard line-ups that blocked him at SF and two big-man line-ups that blocked him at PF. Warren played 614 minutes in 40 games and spent a lot of the season in the D-League, where he put up monstrous numbers - 26.8 points and 7 rebounds on 54.4 percent shooting.
That’s what you will notice if you follow Warren’s career. No matter what situation he’s in what role he has on the team he is on, he’s a guy who has always been able to put the ball in the basket. He’s a very unorthodox player - he’s not a great shooter or post-up player and he’s not an elite athlete. At 6’8 220 with a 6’10 wingspan, Warren is the master of the mid-range game, with the ability to score off the dribble from an unbelievable variety of angles and an uncommon touch around the basket. He’s never been in an environment where he could garner a lot of national publicity but that’s about to change in Phoenix, where he’s a huge part of their future plans.
Coming out of high school, Warren was a McDonald’s All-American who could have played anywhere in the country. Instead of going to a school like Duke or North Carolina, he wound up at NC State, where he was always in the shadow of the two marquee programs down the road. Even in this day and age, it’s hard for a guy playing in Raleigh to get the same type of love as a guy playing in Chapel Hill or Durham. As a freshman, Warren shared the ball on a talented but dysfunctional team that wound up losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. As a sophomore, he put up eye-popping stats on a one-man team that suffered the same fate. No matter what was going on around him, he was putting up numbers.
In his first season at NC State, Warren pretty much never got the ball. The Wolfpack returned four upperclassmen, three of whom - Lorenzo Brown, CJ Leslie and Richard Howell - got a shot at the next level. He was the fifth option on a team that never really got it all together and he got almost all of his points by moving without the ball - running the floor, crashing the boards and cutting to the rim. He didn’t get a lot of opportunities and he made everyone of them count, averaging 12.1 points a game on 62.2 percent shooting.
Things changed for him as a sophomore after an exodus of graduations and transfers left Mark Gottfried’s program almost bereft of talent. N.C. State needed Warren to use up as many possessions as he could possibly handle - it was a lot like what happened to the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James at the end of last season’s playoffs. Warren averaged 24.9 points a game on 52.5% shooting while the second leading scorer on the team averaged 10.5 points a game. He had seven games over 30 points and two over 40 points and only 4 games all season where he was held under 20.
That shouldn’t be able to happen at any level of basketball. If a guy is on a team where no one else can score, the defense should be able to take the ball out of his hands. If he is scoring, he should be pretty inefficient. What makes Warren so unique is that he can pour in buckets without dominating the ball. It was not a Carmelo Anthony situation where one guy was surveying the defense and holding the ball for most of the game. Warren makes decisions quickly and he doesn’t need much daylight to get the ball up. It didn’t matter whether he was double or even triple teamed - he was still going to get the shot he wanted whenever he wanted it.
The key to his game is the running floater. Warren is the rare giant who has made the giant killer shot his own. He can run into the lane at full-speed and get his shot off at any release point. It’s a difficult shot to make and Warren makes it look easy. It almost doesn’t matter what type of defense he is facing because even the best defenders are going to allow guys to throw up garbage. He has just always been able to make garbage shots at a really high percentage.
N.C. State didn’t need to run a lot of isolations for Warren to get offense since he could get shots within the flow of the offense. He would usually get multiple chances over the course of a possession as the ball swung around the court before he eventually found a shot he liked. He’s a very smart player with a nose for the ball who knows how to set the defense up, a mismatch nightmare who can use his speed to get around bigger players and his size to shoot over smaller ones. Put it all together and you have an offensive machine at the NCAA level.
The question is how his game will translate to the NBA since almost no one plays like he does anymore. The only guy in recent years whom I’d compare him too is Antawn Jamison. After spending a lottery pick on him, the Suns need to find out what they have in Warren, which was one of the reasons for the salary dump that saw them send Marcus Morris and Reggie Bullock to the Detroit Pistons for a future second-round pick. Just as important as clearing salary cap space for LaMarcus Aldridge was clearing playing time for Warren at SF and PF.
It’s unclear exactly how the fit will work itself out. Since he’s not a great three-point shooter, he would probably be best as a small-ball PF in a spread floor. A line-up with Markieff Morris at the 5 and Warren at the 4 would make a lot of sense but the Suns have invested too much in Tyson Chandler and Alex Len at C to go small too often. Phoenix doesn’t have a ton of three-point shooting on the perimeter either so Warren won’t have that much space to operate in. The good news is that he’s a guy who can sliver through cracks and find his way to the rim.
The Suns are in an interesting position in the middle of the Western Conference where they have a lot of good players but they are clearly a step below the elite teams and they are still on the outside of the playoff picture. They are going to have to depend on internal improvement to take the next step but a lot of their young core - Alex Len, Archie Goodwin, Devin Booker - is blocked in terms of potential playing time in the near future. Warren is their one young guy with the chance to take a step forward and vault them into the Top 8 out West.
What he will have to do is expand his game as he’s not great at anything else but scoring. He doesn’t space the floor well, he’s only a decent rebounder and passer and he never had to play too much defense in college. He’s still only 21 years old, though, so he still has plenty of room to grow. Either way, if the Suns are pushing the ball and he’s getting minutes on their second unit, don’t be surprised if TJ Warren is putting up big point totals next season. That’s just what he does.