Sports

The Player Who Unlocked a Secret Weapon and Sent His Trade Value Soaring

He was never much of a three-point shooter, but after honing his shot in the offseason, Phoenix Suns forward T.J. Warren is a whole new problem for opposing defenses.

by Michael Pina
Dec 21 2018, 3:32pm

Photo by John Amis/EPA-EFE

The below has been excerpted from this week's Outlet Pass, to get caught up on everything else you need to know in the NBA this week read the rest of the column here.

Rest in peace to the mental block that prevented T.J. Warren from being comfortable behind the three-point line.

Only 25 and discreetly locked into one of the NBA’s most team-friendly contracts (a $50 million deal that runs through 2022 and actually decreases by $1 million next year before popping back up in 2021), Warren has ameliorated the one slice of his game that’s kept him under the radar ever since he entered the league.

“It was a secret weapon,” Suns head coach Igor Kokoškov jokes. “He didn’t know he has it.”

This season, Warren has already made 48 threes, which is two more than the last two years combined. His current three-point rate is double his previous career high, too, and—apologies for burying the lede but—they’re going in 44.4 percent of the time! (Among all players who launch at least four threes per game, only Steph Curry, Bojan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, and Joe Harris have been more accurate than Warren, who entered this season making just 28.3 percent of his career threes.)

To course correct the issue, Warren spent the summer in Raleigh, North Carolina, working out with his best friend and trainer Trevor West (David West’s nephew).

“Me and him, we was working out all summer together trying to fix the shot, because I always had the good touch, but it was always a mental thing,” Warren told VICE Sports. “It’s kind of just one of those things like ‘Man, why shoot threes if I’m shooting this percentage around the rim?’ And then you see where the game is going and you just say ‘You know what? I’m tired of people telling me what I can’t do. I’m gonna adjust to this and show people that I can do this while doing what I’m really good at, my bread and butter, which is around the rim.’ I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.”

The upgrade is startling and has transformed Warren—already someone who’s remained efficient while increasing his scoring average by at least three points every year of his career—into a completely different type of problem for opponents who were happy to duck under screens and ignore him off the ball. Defenders are now forced to chase him over picks and funnel him into the paint, which is where he wants to be anyway.

“Guys are trailing me now, so it’s kind of opened everything up,” Warren said. “When you see the opponent start to respect your shot, that’s a good thing.”

His growth into an undeniably valuable offensive weapon should make him attractive to good, non-Suns teams that feel they need the punch from all three levels that Warren can now provide. The contract is long, but long contracts at a relatively low number are juicy. And even though Warren is a fine complement next to Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton, and the rest of their young core, Phoenix may want to (further) tank this season away by shedding one of their most intriguing trade chips—and someone who really props up the offense—for less expensive future assets. As someone who isn't known for his passing, Warren may not be long for Kokoškov's system, either.

"At the level he played in high-school and college, he was such a dominant driver. And young American players who can go to the basket and turn the corner and attack the rim, they don’t feel they have to develop [the three-point shot]," Phoenix's head coach said. "You realize at this level, if you’re decent, which [Warren] is—very good three-point shooter—then there’s going to be more space for him to drive the lane. If somebody’s open, he should make the extra pass and that’s how we play basketball."

The Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans, Orlando Magic, Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Sacramento Kings should have interest. These teams all want to make the playoffs and Warren can help them get there. But are any willing to give up a first-round pick for someone who'll cut into their long-term cap space (particularly this summer)?

Warren’s perspective on the matter is fixed: “I’m with Phoenix, and I’m happy to be here. I’m focused on turning everything around and getting wins for this organization,” he told VICE Sports. “That’s my main focus and my everyday focus.”