Suns

Warren’s Newfound 3-Ball Key in Suns’ Development

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Is It The Cornrows?

Phoenix’s longest tenured player, T.J. Warren, started this season with a fresh new look and a dogged determination to drain it from downtown. In addition to the ‘Jr.’ tag to the back of his jersey, Warren now sports thick, evenly spaced cornrows pulled back tight like Latrell Sprewell‘s gremlin cousin.

Even though the game-by-game final deficits haven’t always shown it, there are positive things happening in Phoenix. The obvious headlines are that the NBA’s number one draft pick, Deandre Ayton, is living up to his number thus far– and Devin Booker has continued with his sniper fire. Such developments were the basis of hope during preseason.

Despite the lack of consistent team chemistry, there have been many other great individual developments. The reversal of fortune that was the swap of lackluster Trevor Ariza for newblood Kelly Oubre Jr., rookies Mikal Bridges and De’Anthony Melton solidifying the starting lineup, Josh Jackson turning into that reckless but lovable first man off the bench, and Richaun Holmes filling the void of energy left open by bag weights Ryan Anderson and Dragan Bender.

Most unexpectedly has been Warren’s start. So far, Warren has nearly doubled his three-point percentage from last season, rising from 22% to 43.7%. He’s averaging 4.4 threes per game (62/142 as of Thursday’s loss to the Sixers). He was always going to be an efficient scorer, but he rarely stepped far outside the paint. In his first four seasons, he was a dependable cutting small forward– moving without the ball and darting through the lane. Last season, he averaged 19.6 points per contest, up from 14.5 the season prior.

Currently, Warren is shooting 50.1% and averages 18.2 points per game. He’s scored 25+ in eight games– including a 30-point performance (11/17 FG, 3/4 3Pt) against the Dallas Mavericks.

New “Big 3” Surfacing?

Warren is one of those players willing to take hits and throw his body around for the basket (despite his penchant for head injuries). This has showed no signs of slowing down. An ankle injury earlier this season kept him out of four games during a particularly brutal stretch for the team with Booker also out. Back at full strength, Warren has started most games playing the 4 under Ayton and has quickly solidified himself as part of Phoenix’s unofficial “big three” next to Booker and Ayton.

Warren adopting a dynamic outside shot has provided a fluidity of motion around Ayton with starters Booker, Bridges and Melton. When Phoenix’s nucleus is working in tandem, they are actually pretty good. When they can rely on efficient help from any assortment of Bridges, Jackson, Oubre or veteran Jamal Crawford on a nightly basis, they will be a nagging, competitive force.

MIP Conversation?

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Going into this season, Warren was the player on the team least expected to take his game to the next level. Not that we thought he couldn’t make a leap, or that he’d reached his ceiling, simply that, as a five-year player, Warren was making his name as a reliable 15-20 PPG guy who could come in, stir up the defense and score. He’s maintained that characteristic, but also upped his range to include a three-point shot at such a rate it’s not unreasonable to think he could be on the shortlist for Most Improved Player by year’s end.

The past four award winners have been Victor Oladipo, Giannis Antetokounmpo, CJ McCollum and Jimmy Butler. With the Suns slumping forward, it’s likely the award will fall to others like De’Aaron Fox of Sacramento or Pascal Siakam in Toronto, who are making stronger cases.

RELATED: 3 Most Improved Players of 2018 

So far, though, Warren’s three-point range shows no signs of being a fluke. He can hit it from the corners, up top, guarded, on the quick pull-up in transition– even with milliseconds ticking down in the quarter. He’s shown incredible ease with his release. His shot chart is a smattering of attempts all around the arc.

Shot chart courtesy of BasketballReference.com

Three-point Contest?

Suns TV broadcast announcer and former Suns player, Eddie Johnson, has been petitioning on air to get Warren into this year’s three-point contest at NBA All-Star weekend in February. If Warren gets in, he’d be following Booker after he broke the record with 28 at last year’s extravaganza. The last duo from the same team to win this contest one after the other was Golden State’s tandem of Stephen Curry in 2015 and Klay Thompson in 2016.

Warren is a low-emotion guy. He cracks threes without a shrug or a wink. The unexpectedness of his sudden prowess from distance is still a tricky diversion for the defense. He is still not the player pegged to fear shooting from downtown, so he can find himself open often. That will be Phoenix’s stealthy advantage this season until opponents start underlining his name in red ink on scouting reports. Hopefully by then, Warren’s shot will be so deadly it won’t matter.

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About Eli Jace

Eli Jace is from Arizona.

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