T.J. Warren was one of the most polarizing prospects in the NBA draft this year, largely due to his unique playing style. His proponents always noted his innate ability to score the ball and his great size for the small forward position, while detractors fixated on the translatability of his game and tweener-y athleticism.
I tended to fall in the middle, placing Warren right outside of the lottery on my final big board, noting my worry that his inability to shoot from long distance could end up pushing him more towards the power forward position. The major problem with Warren at the 4 is that — despite having the height for it at slightly over 6’8 — he doesn’t carry weight well and plays much better at about 215-220 lbs (he lost about 20 pounds prior to his sophomore season in order to improve his athleticism). His rebounding ability on the defensive end also leaves a lot to be desired.
When Warren has his game working though, he’s an incredible instinctual shot creator that gets to the paint both with his straight line ball-handling and his excellent off-ball movement. Upon getting to the paint, he has a tremendous array of floaters and flip shots that is unlike any like-sized player in the NBA today. Those shots also allow him to keep interior defenders off-balance, which makes him incredibly effective at the rim, where he shot 76% this season. It’s also worth mentioning that he’s an excellent transition scorer that knows exactly when to fill passing lanes for lead guards.
However, in the NBA, the added length and athleticism makes this a somewhat difficult translation for an average athlete like Warren . Therefore, the development of an outside jumper to keep defenders from cheating into the paint against him is essential to take full advantage of his game from the perimeter.
So, the question now becomes whether or not Warren has shown any development in these regards during his workout process or since he’s been drafted. During his first summer league game, none of these necessary developments were particularly evident. This isn’t the worst thing in the world and it doesn’t particularly speak to his potential success or failure in the NBA. It just simply goes to state that these are things that the Suns will continually need to work with in order to get the most of his talent.
Let’s take a look at his first summer league game in detail. Upon first glance, Warren had an incredible debut, scoring 22 points on only 16 shots, garnering four rebounds as well as a steal and a block. But upon after taking a closer look, it’s difficult to say that many of these points came in meaningful ways. His point breakdown came as such:
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Warren only attempted one jumper outside of 15 feet, early in the first quarter:
It’s pretty easy to see why Warren’s set jumper is considered the weakest part of his game. His balance is totally off, and it seems like his feet are almost not even set at the rim. The release is rather fluid, but as you’ll see in the next gif, his release point can tend to waver. The next example comes on the right wing, where the defense goads him into a midrange jumper.
Here, the Warriors ICE the ball screen from Elias Harris, and Warren plays right into their hands. He drives to the right into a trap, where Justin Holiday and James Michael McAdoo can use their length to cause problems for Warren. McAdoo contests the weak midrange jumper, which ends up being hitch-y with a completely different release point from the previous shot. His feet are in a totally different spot than they were in the past shot and end up in a totally off-balance position. Finally, his lack of follow-through is troubling.
That’s not to say everything was bad by Warren. That would actually be far from the truth. He obviously asserted himself in transition by getting those easy buckets, and also used his fantastic instincts to put himself into position for put-backs and for easy looks. Here’s an example of how Warren instinctually knows how to move when away from the ball to put himself into a position to score.
Here, Warren notices Rodney McGruder start to sag off of him into the paint. Right as he sees McGruder make the move towards the driving guard, Warren makes his move into the paint, slashing hard towards the rim. For a coordinated, strong athlete like Warren, that’s a fairly easy catch and finish with contact. This ability to finish through contact due to both his excellent touch and strength will be essential to his success, especially as his perimeter skills lag behind his midrange skills.
The Suns are an interesting place for Warren. His game has quite a few redundancies with the Morris twins. However, given that both of them have three-point range from the 4 spot, they both could be excellent fits to stretch the floor as Warren continues to attack the midrange from the 3. Someone who has such intuitive brilliance off ball will always have a place with a smart guard like Goran Dragic. There’s a lot to work with here, and I don’t particularly think that Warren was a reach at 14. However, his development of a more competent jump shot will ultimately be the difference between his being a good scorer off the bench and his being a borderline all-star caliber player in the peak Caron Butler mold.