T.J. Warrens star rising after third season with Suns

Although his skillset is still evolving and his team failed to make the playoffs, the former NC State star finished the season on a high and stands poised to cash in on the potential that made him the 14th overall pick in 2014.

Jeremy Brevard—X02835
Mar 26

PHOENIX — No one has ever doubted T.J. Warren’s ability to put the ball in the basket.His nickname is Tony Buckets, after all.The overriding question that followed the former NC State star to the NBA when he entered the draft after his sophomore season was how far the other areas of his game would allow him to go. Three seasons into his career with the Phoenix Suns, he appears ready to provide an answer.Warren posted improved numbers in virtually every statistical category this year and showed significant growth as both a rebounder and defender from his small forward position. Although his skillset is still evolving and his team failed to make the playoffs, he finished the season on a high and stands poised to cash in on the potential that made him the 14th overall pick in 2014.”I’ve got this talent and I want to take advantage of everything I can do,” Warren said. “I want to stay consistent with that. I know the type of scorer I can be in this league. I feel like I showed a glimpse of what kind of rebounder I can be and that I can do other things too.”Warren’s blossoming as an NBA player has taken longer than expected, in part because of injuries that have helped slow the process.After splitting his rookie campaign between the Suns and the D League’s Bakersfield Jam, the 2014 ACC Player of the Year appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough when he suffered fractured right foot midway through his second year.He also missed 13 games this season with what was termed a “minor head injury,” But since playing his way back into shape and having his role increased following a trade deadline deal that sent fellow small forward P.J. Tucker to Toronto, Warren responded by playing the best basketball of his young career.Against Oklahoma City on April 7, he hit for 23 points and 16 rebounds in a 120-99 rout of Russell Westbrook and the playoff-bound Thunder. Two nights later, he became the first Suns player since Steve Nash in 2011 to score at least 20 points while not missing either a field goal or free throw by going 8 for 8 from the floor and 3 for 3 from the line in a 21-point performance against the Dallas Mavericks.”He was amazing,” Suns coach Earl Watson said after that game. “He was chasing down rebounds, perfect from the field. He defended great. His presence is continuing to grow.”In 25 games after the NBA All-Star break, Warren averaged 17.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. The latter stat is by far the most impressive, considering that the 6-foot-8 wing never averaged more than 3.1 rebounds per game in his first two seasons.”What I like best is he’s getting defensive rebounds in traffic over starting power forwards,” Watson said. “To me, that’s what stands out. His motor to get defensive rebounds has changed dramatically.”That’s not the only thing that’s changed.According to Watson, Warren’s newfound aggressiveness on the court has helped bring about a positive change in his off-the-court demeanor as well.”You see him growing a lot in self-confidence as far as being a player and being a young adult and just evolving all around from talking to wearing earrings in his ears,” the Suns coach said. “You can just see the confidence come in. Hopefully, we can continue to build on that.”Watson referred to Warren as “a throwback player” who he compared favorably to future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce.In order to reach that kind of elite status, though, Warren must still prove he’s capable of staying healthy for an entire 82-game schedule. He also needs to improve on a perimeter shooting touch that saw him make only 26.5 percent of his 3-point attempts. That compares to his 59 percent accuracy from 2-point range.He finished the season averaging 14.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals in a career-high 66 games.”I feel like I’m making a name for myself,” Warren said. “I feel like I have a lot more work to do and I want to continue to be that player I know I can be in this league.”I feel like the game was really slowing down. I’m picking my spots. I know my strengths. I know where I can be effective. I’m going to continue to be efficient, I’m going to continue to play good defense and continue to prove myself. The best is yet to come.”As he has the past two years, Warren plans to return home to Raleigh to do his offseason work amid friends and familiar surroundings.Not everything is the same as the last time he left, though, thanks to a shakeup that saw NC State fire his college coach Mark Gottfried and replace him with UNC Wilmington’s Kevin Keatts.It’s a situation Warren said he followed from afar with both interest and sadness.”It was tough, because Gottfried had a great run,” the Wolfpack alumnus said. “The time I was there was great and unbelievable. It was sad to see my coach get fired, but I understand it’s a business and it’s tough sometimes. I’m happy for Coach Keatts. I’ve known him from when he was recruiting me at Louisville and when he was at Hargrave. I know him a little bit and I’m happy for him and where the program is headed.”Warren is even more excited about the direction of his current team. Despite finishing with a 24-58 record, the Suns have build a solid young nucleus of first, second and third-year players such as Warren, Devin Booker, Tyler Ullis and Dragan Bender.They’ll also have a high pick in this year’s draft.But with high-profile small forwards Jason Tatum and Josh Jackson likely to be available and Warren’s rookie contract now eligible to be renegotiated or extended, the possibility exists that he could get moved to another team before the start of next season.Warren said he’d understand if that happens because like Gottfried’s firing, basketball at the highest level is a business. But he’d prefer to stay right where he is.”I’ll just wait and see right now,” he said. “I want to be in Phoenix and build with this young core. I feel like I’m a part of that core and I want to continue to move forward.”His teammates would like that too, if for no other reason than his uncanny ability for putting the ball in the basket.”He gets buckets,” veteran point guard Eric Bledsoe said. ‘Tony Buckets’ is his name.”