T.J. Warren: Is there cause for concern?

Mar 20, 2014; Orlando, FL, USA; North Carolina State Wolfpack forward T.J. Warren (24) against the Saint Louis Billikens during the second half of a men

One of the pleasant rookie surprises from July’s Las Vegas Summer League was the performance of Suns’ top pick T.J. Warren. His selection as the 14th overall pick was seen as a slight reach by many, as he projects to be something of a tweener at the NBA level. Warren lacks the size to play inside as well as the jump shot or lateral defensive quickness to spend much time on the wing.

So against that backdrop, scoring nearly 18 points in under 25 minutes per game on highly efficient shooting was a revelatory performance from Warren. Unfortunately, he accomplished this scoring in the same way he got his college baskets – transition, cuts to the rim and put backs. Making that next step up in class to actual NBA play (with well-designed defenses and actual rim protection), these opportunities are going to be limited.

An examination of his college shot chart (courtesy of Austin Clemens’ spiffy new tool), illustrates the point:

T.J. Warren Shot Chart

Warren was only consistently effective in the paint, attempting few threes. Those threes he did take, he shot poorly. This trend continued in Summer League as he missed all four of his attempts from deep over the course of the tourney.

Neither particularly long nor explosive (a 6’10 wingspan and a 27 inch standing vertical leap, per Draft Express), Warren does not project to be a big rebounder or shot blocker. Nor was he particularly effective at setting up teammates, averaging barely over 1 assist per game at N.C. State and dishing out one, total, in Summer League. The track record of mid-sized forwards of this profile in recent years is pretty brutal, with only 22 player-seasons recorded with an above average PER over the last ten NBA seasons.

In short, he appears in danger of falling into an unfortunate archetype of the great college 3/4 whose physical limitations prevent them from making much of an impact at the NBA level.  Players of this general type who have “made it” have tended to have to reinvent themselves, Jared Dudley by losing enough weight to become a credible wing defender (before adding much of it back to the point where he was salary dumped to Milwaukee earlier this week), while adding a reliable threat.

Another such player who appears to have carved out a career is Warren’s Phoenix teammate, P.J. Tucker.* At Texas, Tucker had a similar pre-draft season to Warren’s sophomore season at N.C. State. Warren was a bit better scorer, Tucker a better rebounder, though neither shot it well from the outside. Despite being a bullyball force in Summer League play, Tucker couldn’t stick in the NBA until he spent a few years oversees and reinvented himself as a gritty, physical perimeter defender who could stick the corner 3.

*Oddly, Tucker’s summer misdeeds open the door for Warren to get some early playing time in Phoenix, as P.J. is suspended for the first five games for an offseason DUI.

Warren’s status as a mid-first round pick — and greater offensive creativity —  probably mean he won’t require quite that much of a Carmen Sandiego approach to a lengthy NBA career. However, to really make an impact, he’s going to have to expand his game, either by becoming a lock down defender, a knock down three-point shooter, or both.

Seth Partnow

Seth Partnow lives in Anchorage, Alaska. He writes about basketball at places like Washington Post's #FancyStats Blog, TrueHoop Network's ClipperBlog. Follow him @SethPartnow and sethpartnow.tumblr.com