T.J. Warren’s Game A Bright Spot For Struggling Suns Offense

Feb 28, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns forward T.J. Warren (12) puts up a layup against the San Antonio Spurs during the first half at US Airways Center. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 28, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns forward T.J. Warren (12) puts up a layup against the San Antonio Spurs during the first half at US Airways Center. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports /

The list of things that went right for the Phoenix Suns last night against the Golden State Warriors looks something like this:

1) T.J. Warren played well in significant minutes, 2) Alex Len had a double-double, 3) Brandon Knight‘s X-rays came back negative and his ankle injury was only a sprain and 4) the fans got to see what a true franchise player looks like when Stephen Curry transformed into Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire.

Last night’s loss dropped the Suns to three games out of the playoff picture, and depending on how much time Knight misses (even with an ankle sprain that doesn’t sound too severe), Phoenix’s postseason pursuit is likely as burnt to a crisp as the nets at US Airway Center were last night.

But let’s go back to Positive Point No. 1.

With 11 points off the bench in 24 minutes, T.J. Warren tied his career high while going 5-for-9 from the floor. He didn’t “wow” anyone the way the entire arena was transfixed by Curry’s flamethrower display, but for those who have been yearning to see Warren get some action over the last few weeks (read: entire 2014-15 season), the signs of promise were there.

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This is particularly true for a Suns offense that has sputtered to a grinding halt over the last few weeks. Since the All-Star break, the Suns are averaging 99.7 points per game (13th in the league) and have an offensive rating of 97.9 points per 100 possessions (23rd).

They’re shooting 43 percent from the field during that span (23rd) and 31.1 percent from three-point range (22nd). They’re committing 16.5 turnovers per game (seventh most) and to top if all off, they’re only assisting on 52.8 percent of their baskets (27th).

So yeah, it’s no surprise that Phoenix’s offense has been held to 80 points, 79 points and 74 points in three of the Suns’ last six outings.

To be fair, those three games came against the Golden State Warriors (owners of the league’s best record), the Cleveland Cavaliers (a suddenly competent defense and Eastern Conference contender with LeBron James) and the San Antonio Spurs (do they ever die??). But with all the iso-ball that’s been going on since the trade deadline, the Suns are in desperate need of someone to create some offense.

Ever since I jinxed him after that thrilling Oklahoma City Thunder win in overtime, Eric Bledsoe has been an up-and-down leader for the Suns. His struggles with turnovers have overshadowed his accomplishments in other columns of the stat sheet and he hasn’t been a source of consistency for a team that severely needs one.

P.J. Tucker has been playing some of the best basketball of his career, but the Suns really can’t afford for him to be their best source of offense like he has been lately. Markieff Morris‘ production has been all over the map, Gerald Green is a shell of his former self and Alex Len really isn’t ready for too many responsibilities on offense yet.

Markieff Morris said the trades Phoenix made at the deadline — moving Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas — are the cause of the Suns’ recent offensive woes.

“It’s a different team, man,” he said. “After the trade we lost 30 points. You can count 30 for those two guys every game. Now we just got to find a way to score, it’s basically what it is.”

Morris isn’t wrong, but perhaps another answer is even more accurate.

If it feels like I’m building toward pointing someone out to be the savior of this team’s dwindling offensive firepower, I apologize. T.J. Warren is nowhere near being that guy as a rookie. But last night against the Warriors, he injected life into the O by doing something no one else on this team has really done lately.

We all know Warren has a nose for the basket. But what makes him so special is the seemingly pedestrian manner in which he accumulates his points. He doesn’t really make highlight reel plays or posterize anyone. He’s not a three-point shooter and though he has a strong midrange game, that’s not where he’s been scoring the majority of his baskets either.

To avoid building up any more suspense, it’s amazing what a guy can do in this league when he’s active off the ball. Head coach Jeff Hornacek seemed a tad exasperated that his rookie was one of the few players on the roster interested in getting easy points by cutting without the ball.

“Makes sense,” Hornacek said after the Warriors game. “Cut and you get the ball and get easier shots. T.J. is great at that and hopefully the more the guys see him doing it maybe the other guys will pick up on it.”

That’s right folks. The offense has gotten so painfully stagnant that a 21-year-old rookie needs to teach his teammates how to move without the ball.

Since All-Star Weekend, Warren is averaging 6.8 points in 14.8 minutes per game on 55.3 percent shooting. Of his 47 field goal attempts in that span, 33 of them have come from less than five feet away from the basket. Warren is shooting 72.7 percent on such shots and if you throw out a couple of “DNPs,” he’s averaging 7.3 points in 16.5 minutes per game over his last six contests.

“It feels good,” Warren said about playing more consistent minutes. “It feels good to get an opportunity and get comfortable out there. Just trying to build confidence as we move forward and just go play hard every time I get a chance.”

Obviously, Warren’s recent numbers move the Suns no closer to the playoffs. They don’t indicate that the Suns have found the Stephen Curry-like player they need for a franchise face. They’re not even a glimmering ray of hope for an offense that passes the ball like it’s playing in the dark.

But with fans’ expectations shifting from “playoffs” to “player development,” the fact that Warren is already one of the smartest scorers on the floor is a good sign for the Suns. And at the very least, it’s an indicator that he deserves the minutes he’s been getting lately.

Next: Suns Analysis: Breaking Down Phoenix's Recent Offensive Woes

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