The Future of Tony Buckets


The city of Phoenix and Planet Orange are still buzzing since prying forward Josh Jackson away from the Boston Celtics with the number four pick overall.

Jackson has the ability to immediately become the best two-way player on the Suns roster. He can potentially guard multiple positions, run the floor with great energy, rebound on both ends, and give the team the wing help it so desperately needs (particularly on the defensive end).

However, forward T.J. Warren is the third scoring option on the roster right now, and even with his history of injuries (a fractured thumb in 2014, a fractured foot in March of 2016, and a minor head injury in November of last season) he has steadily and quietly developed into a very good player.

But do the Suns really  know what they have in Warren? Based on his number of games played, maybe not. The 24-year-old will be a restricted free agent after the 2017-18 NBA season, and the stage is set for him to put it all together this season.

Warren scores in bunches from mid-range, by cutting to the basket, in transition, and on misses. This fits directly in with the Suns’ style of play.

But with Jackson now on the roster, Warren’s name is coming up in trade rumors and the question of whether or not he’ll accept a sixth-man role could define his future. In three seasons, Warren’s played in only 153 of 246 games, and one can only wonder how he’d look for a full season in a Suns uniform.

After returning from the head injury, Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough told Burns and Gambo of Arizona Sports 98.7 FM last December, “he’s been probably our most consistent two-way player and our best scorer in terms of efficiency, and just being able to get a bucket to stop an opposing run or to start a run of our own in the half court.”

McDonough reiterated last March that “his field-goal percentage from the All-Star break is off the charts. He’s improved his rebounding, especially defensively, which is what we need with (center) Tyson (Chandler) out and (Coach) Earl (Watson) playing a smaller lineup. We’ve been very happy with his progress.”

Fast forward four months and McDonough and company are now poised to make a move(s) via free agency and or trade. A move(s) that will likely affect Warren’s playing time and role. Unrestricted free agents (F) Blake Griffin and (F) Paul Milsap meet with Phoenix this weekend, and forward Andre Iguodala is also drawing interest from the Suns.

With the addition of Jackson and any one of those three possible free agent signings, Warren’s resiliency and competitiveness will be tested. He’s accepted his role thus far in Phoenix, but all good NBA players view themselves as starters.

Warren saw time at power forward last season, when center Tyson Chandler was shut down early.

"“Everybody knows I can score, so I just want do all the other things that keep me on the floor.” ” Keep the coaches trusting me, and obviously defense and rebounding are big keys,” said Warren."

Over a 12-game span in February and March, Warren shot 61.3 percent, including 66.7 percent from two-point range. During this stretch his minutes went from 29 to 34.3, and he averaged 17.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.

Forwards Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson are projected as versatile wings, which may work well with Warren’s ability to find open lanes to score. Jackson particularly has shown an ability to create for teammates at the University of Kansas, and Coach Earl Watson plans to experiment with Bender as a point-forward facilitator.

Warren’s bid for a starting role will require improved three-point shooting (26 percent last season), better defense, and consistent rebounding on both ends. It will be interesting to see how he and Jackson play together. Tony Buckets has active hands and a seemingly growing desire to improve defensively, and Jackson will undoubtedly increase that desire. Whether he truly accepts a sixth man role is a question mark, but either way the starting small forward position is still T.J. Warren’s to lose.