Battle-Tested Rookies Arrive in Phoenix

Barry Gossage/NBAE
by Matt Petersen

The level of competition in the ACC isn’t a debate. It’s a historical hotbed of NCAA basketball. Last season, eight different teams finished with at least 20 wins.

From that powerhouse, Phoenix plucked two of the best players via the draft in TJ Warren (North Carolina State) and Tyler Ennis (Syracuse).

“In the Atlantic Coast Conference, which as you guys know is one of the best in the country, TJ won Player of the Year and Tyler was on one of the All-Conference teams and led his team to a 25-0 record and the No. 1 ranking to start the year,” said Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough. “We place a great value on that. They have had a lot of success at the highest levels of college basketball.”

The crucible in which they produced such success matters. Opposing teams knew Warren, a scoring juggernaut in college, was priority A, B and C on defense. His usage rate of 35.5 ranked first in the conference and fifth in the country.

He averaged 24.9 points per contest while shooting over 52 percent from the field anyway.

TJ Warren's Workout in Phoenix

“I think it’s just his feel of the game,” said Suns Head Coach Jeff Hornacek. “No matter where he gets the ball. He moves very well without the ball. The back cuts and stuff that when teams are looking at our other players and how they’re going to help out on Goran or Eric, he’s going to slip behind them and get opportunities that way too.”

“He’ll fit right in.”

Ennis was a different kind of target in the ACC, the engine that made the entire Syracuse vehicle go. Yet opponents knew the offense started with him and, if the game was on the line, ended with him more often than not.

McDonough cited Ennis’ off-the-charts numbers at the end of tight games immediately after Thursday’s draft, but it’s his overall caretaking abilities that have the Suns looking forward to his impact.

Phoenix finished in the bottom five in the league in turnovers last season (15.3 per game). Part of that can be credited to their speed of play, which creates more possessions per game and, consequently, more opportunities to commit turnovers.

Yet the simple truth is miscues cost Phoenix a couple games it should have won, which would have meant the difference between the lottery and the playoffs. Ennis’ 3.6 assist-to-turnover ratio could help immensely.

Tyler Ennis After the Draft

“Tyler [brings] the poise of running a team and getting guys in the right spots,” Hornacek said. “He’s going to make plays and make guys better, knock down a shot if its’ there or make a great pass.”

It’s hard to trust Ennis’ late-game instincts or Warren’s “feel for the game” without considerable evidence that they’ll survive the most competitive of conditions.

Their big-game resumé indicates they can.

“Obviously this is a big step up on competition in the NBA,” McDonough said. “These guys know that, but they’re off to a good start.”

The respect is mutual between the rookies, as well. The two went head-to-head twice last season, with Ennis sheepishly recalling how his mighty Orange were ousted in March.

“We’ve done scouting on each other,” he said. “We’ve watched the other play through conference. We’re 1-1. They beat us in the [ACC] tournament.”

Now, the former rivals find themselves joining last year’s first-round picks Archie Goodwin and Alex Len as an energetic core of talent, speed and potential.

“You watch a player, you respect him after the game, and the next year you get to play with him,” Ennis said. “I think we kind of know each other’s game. I think we’ll work well together.”

Warren agreed.

“We’re going to complement each other good,” he said. “Tyler’s a great player. We come from a great conference. This is going to be fun to compete together.”

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