Through 10 days of the Las Vegas Summer League, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker were the toast of the Strip—a pair of genuinely electric prodigies appearing poised to honor every hair of hype.
Everyone knew T.J. Warren was good. Averaging 25 points per game and bringing home the ACC Player of the Year Award as a sophomore all but proved it.
That he was this good, this seemingly NBA-ready—not even the handful of teams ahead of the Suns could have quite seen that coming. He's averaged nearly 18 points and shot over 50 percent in summer league, leaving a lot of excitement for the future.
The retort, of course, is all too obvious: Plenty of players have put up big numbers in Vegas, only to fizzle out in the NBA or fade away overseas.
But it’s how Warren has made his impact that could prove a fantastic bellwether for next year’s Suns.
In a word: efficiently. Warren has long been known as a creative scorer—someone whose offensive repertoire seemed culled from a bygone basketball era. The question was whether the 6’8” forward could parlay his penchant for awkward jumpers and off-balance bankers into effectiveness against superior competition.
“Warren is a unique NBA prospect,” ESPN’s Kevin Pelton recently wrote (subscription only). “His effectiveness was built on creating 2-point shots (his usage rate ranked seventh in the NCAA, per KenPom.com) while hitting them at an impressive 58.0 percent clip. That makes Warren a throwback to 1980s small forwards like Bernard King and Alex English. Can such a player thrive in the modern NBA? Unclear.”
To his credit, Warren has been quick to acknowledge the knock.
“It’s kind of harder, I’m trying to figure it out,” Warren said following a recent win over the Philadelphia 76ers, per Pro Basketball Talk’s Kurt Helin. “In college you could kind of finish through guys, at the next level it’s different. So you’ve got to be craftier, find ways to put it in the basket. I’m adjusting to it pretty well.”
“Pretty well” might be an understatement: Warren has only once failed to crest 50 percent from the floor in five summer league starts.
In fact, according to NBA.com, Warren ranks first in field-goal percentage among summer leaguers who have attempted at least 50 shots and fourth among those attempting 40 or more—a stat made all the more impressive by the fact that the three players above him (Darius Morris, James Nunnally and Donatas Motiejunas) all boast significant Vegas experience.
What’s more, the former North Carolina State standout has accomplished all this without making a single three-point attempt.
In fact, three-point prowess might be Warren’s only glaring offensive weakness (save, perhaps, for the dearth of assists).
Said Suns summer league coach Mike Longabardi, via Helin: “I think his three ball will come, he’s just got to practice it.”
Judging by the profusion of profile pieces written on Warren, Phoenix fans can rest assured he'll be putting in the work on this front. “Gym rat” is a common refrain, with Fox Sports’ Lauren Brownlow using the phrase to describe how Warren spent the summer between his freshman and sophomore seasons trimming down to an easier playing weight:
Leaner and quicker at 218 pounds, Warren was ready. He got there mentally, too, as some former NC State players -- including his father Tony, who played at NC State before having an NBA career of his own -- counseled him about being more mature.
[Former NC State point guard Chris] Corchiani was one who offered Warren advice. He had known Warren since he was a kid, and had watched him grow up. He knew what a big undertaking it was going to be for the shy, soft-spoken basketball phenom to be ‘the guy.
Warren handled the obstacle the same way he did opposing defenses in the ACC. He studied it, assessed it, and figured out a way to overcome it.
And overcome it he did: Warren scored 27 points in his sophomore debut, a 98-77 win over Appalachian State. And while his shooting efficiency would eventually take a bit of a dip (from a phenomenal 64 percent true-shooting percentage his freshman year to 57 percent the following season), Warren’s overall productivity was good enough to register a cartoonish 31.3 player efficiency rating.
In one calendar year, he had transformed himself into a possible lottery pick—that much was clear. Whether the crafty scorer would be quick and athletic enough to excel as a professional, however, remained something of an open question.
Truth be told, not even a stellar summer league will be enough to definitively squash that concern. At the same time, it’s hard not to see Warren fitting in perfectly with head coach Jeff Hornacek’s uptempo, opportunistic offensive system.
Even Warren quickly appreciated the fit, telling AZCentral.com’s Paul Coro on draft night, "I love their style of play. They like to get up and down. They want to push the tempo. My style of play fits that. I run the floor hard and pick my spots in transition."
With Phoenix recently agreeing to a three-year, $16.5 million deal with forward P.J. Tucker—who, after five seasons spent playing everywhere from Spain to Ukraine, made a surprisingly productive return to the NBA in 2012—it’s unclear whether Warren’s eye-popping play guarantees him anything more than rotational relevance.
Still, if there’s one thing we learned about last year’s Suns, it’s that Hornacek isn’t especially interested in playing to strategic type; Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe regularly shared the backcourt, and the team even went out and nabbed former Sacramento King Isaiah Thomas.
For Hornacek, it’s not what you play but how you play that really matters.
Warren's game—at once highly skilled and idiosyncratic—might hearken to some distant decade. But if his Vegas showing is a portent of things to come, he could be a key piece in helping the Suns put their stamp on the next one.