Don't Sleep on Warren's 'Underrated' Defense

TJ Warren made a name for himself with his scoring, but it was his defense in workouts that convinced Phoenix he was their guy in the draft.
Photo courtesy of North Carolina State Athletics
by Matt Petersen

Last season’s Suns team was defined by a collective chip on its shoulder that came from different sources.

Gerald Green wasn’t “just a dunker”. Eric Bledsoe wasn’t “just a backup.” P.J. Tucker wasn’t “just a defender.”

All three – along with most of their teammates – showed they had much more to offer. Green was Phoenix’s one-man heat check. Bledsoe flourished as a do-it-all starter. Tucker turned into an analytics dream by adding the corner three to his arsenal.

Phoenix has made a point of identifying under-utilized talent and allowing it to flourish in the desert. They feel the process will repeat itself with TJ Warren.

When the Suns took the North Carolina State standout 14th overall in last week’s draft, the same scouting report seemed to come from multiple talking heads.

“Great scorer. Can he defend?”

Phoenix’s answers: “Definitely. Yes.”

The Suns’ front office and coaching staff already had their list of question marks ready before Warren worked out not once, but twice in the Valley. He had already showed up on the Suns’ scouting radar thanks to his “unique” knack for scoring, which produced nearly 25 points per game in the brutal Atlantic Coast Conference.

Head Coach Jeff Hornacek wanted to see his work on t eh other end of the floor.

“The question for him isn’t the scoring part of it, it’s the defense,” he said at the time.

Warren knew he’d need to address that to cement his status as a borderline lottery pick. He made a point of attacking his defensive assignment in the scrimmage portions of the workout, using the same combination of speed and size that gives him such an advantage on the offensive end.

That made it even less of a debate to select Warren when the Suns were on the clock at No. 14 last Thursday.

“I’m just going to bring 100 percent effort on the defensive end. I feel like I’m pretty underrated on the defensive end.”

— TJ Warren

“In one of our drills, it was a mix [of matchups],” Hornacek said. “One time he guarded a point guard. Next time it was a forward. The next time it was a center who tried to back him down.”

“He stopped all three of them.”

Again, Warren’s physique lends above-average potential on defense. He made a point to shed double-digit pounds heading into his sophomore season at N.C. State, but he’s retained the natural solidness of his frame. Combine that with his height (6-8), and it’s doubtful any small forwards will attempt to back him down, much less be successful.

He’s equally prepared for speedier counterparts. At the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, Warren tied for second among small forwards in the lane agility drill, ahead of supposedly more athletic prospects such as Duke’s Rodney Hood and Syracuse’s Jerami Grant. Ditto in the shuttle run (second).

It helps that those physical tools are backed up by his desire to prove he’s more than “just a scorer.”

“I’m just going to bring 100 percent effort on the defensive end,” Warren said. “I feel like I’m pretty underrated on the defensive end.”