As the guy being traded alongside a living legend like Kevin Durant, T.J. Warren was always destined to fly under the radar. “Tony Buckets” may have been rejoining the same Phoenix Suns organization that originally drafted him back in 2014, but his place in the lineup of such a drastically revamped franchise was never assured.
Over his first month back in the Valley, Warren struggled to crack Monty Williams’ rotation. He tallied just 9 points in his first eight appearances, registering five “DNP-CDs” in the process.
Even worse, on the rare occasions where Warren did see the floor, he was uncharacteristically timid, attempting only 14 shots in 51 minutes of action. In early March, he went through a three-game stretch where he didn’t attempt a shot at all, which was part of a five-game span where he failed to score at all.
Considering he started his Suns tenure 4-for-14, and that they were hardly playing him for his defense, it was easy to overlook Warren as a candidate for playoff minutes. His homecoming was a happy story, but once Landry Shamet re-entered the mix, it was starting to feel like Warren’s actual, on-court impact would be an afterthought.
With Kevin Durant sidelined by his ankle sprain and the Suns desperate for offense amidst a prolonged skid, however, Williams was forced to reassess his bench. In a conversation with Warren, the Suns coach told him he’d get a fair shake.
“It’s tough when you play three or four minutes and then you sit and you don’t know if you’re gonna go back in in the second half, that kind of thing,” Williams said. “So I’ve just tried to give him not just a fair shake — when you’re missing as many points as we’re missing, and you have a guy over there that can score, you want to try to take advantage of it to try to supplement what you’re missing.”
In his 10th appearance with the Suns, Warren only added 6 points on 3-of-6 shooting off the bench against the Los Angeles Lakers. But he hoisted without hesitation, and seeing a few of those shots fall in the same game — while finally crossing the 20-minute threshold — may have been what this pure bucket-getter needed to break through.
Because for the last two games, Tony Buckets has looked like he’s back.
“Offensively, he’s finding his spots,” Williams said. “He understands spacing, he understands if he has a matchup, he can post up….He’s just out there playing.”
It’s a small sample, but Warren has joined Terrence Ross as a bench fire starter for the last two games now. Whereas new arrival T.J. Warren scored 15 points total over his first nine games with the Suns, Tony Buckets is averaging 15.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 28 minutes per game over the last two. He’s doubled his total points and made field goals in that span, and it’s not just empty production; he’s had a positive impact when he’s been on the floor too.
- First 9 games: 15 points total, 7-20 FG, 1-3 3P, -6 in 71 minutes
- Last 2 games: 31 points total, 14-25 FG, 3-8 3P, +32 in 56 minutes
Devin Booker, who bonded with Warren during their brief time together at the start of their careers, kept in contact over the years. Reunited where it all began in Phoenix, Booker mentioned in February how he was looking forward to making new memories together. Now that Warren’s getting his opportunity, they’ll finally getting to do so on the court.
“He’s a hooper,” Booker said. “That’s rule No. 1 to walk into this gym: You gotta love the game. T.J.’s a little more quiet, you might not hear the most words out of him, but he loves this game of basketball, he knows the history of the game. He’s just a bucket.”
In a 132-125 loss to the Sacramento Kings on Friday, Ross stole the show off the bench with a season-high 30 points, while Jock Landale impressed with 17. But Warren was an under-the-radar bright spot as well, notching 15 points on 7-of-13 shooting.
In Saturday’s much-needed win over the Philadelphia 76ers, Warren followed up with the best performance of his second Suns stint so far, adding 16 points, 8 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block and 1 steal on 7-of-12 shooting, including 2-of-4 from deep. He was much better defensively too, and finishing as a team-high +25, he looked capable of delivering on Deandre Ayton’s prediction from weeks ago.
“That’s Mr. Midrange, he’s a bucket himself,” Ayton said. “He’s gonna love the offense once he’s really cleared up, and once he really sees how our offense run, he’s gonna understand, like, ‘Yeah, when you get the ball, hey, it’s your turn to score, bro.’ Our 0.5 and sharing the ball and just being competitive, he’s gonna understand, ‘Okay,’ We play fast and we play in spacing, and who don’t love playing in space?”
The path to minutes starts on D for T.J. Warren
When Warren rejoined the Suns, his aim was to contribute to the organization’s established structure — a system that valued consistency with guys like Booker, Durant and Chris Paul setting the example.
“Just being aggressive, taking pressure off Book and KD and CP and all those guys,” Warren said. “Just trying to be that consistent weapon. Just be myself and just continue to work my way back.”
This, of course, came on top of simply trying to work his way back from multiple foot surgeries over the past two years that kept him off the court from December of 2020 until December of 2022. Warren admitted it was hard trying to make up for two years in two months.
“Being off for two years, I really got to look myself in the mirror and really just sit back and observe so much,” he said. “I worked so hard to get back to this point, and it definitely feels good to be back playing the game I love.”
As expected, most expectations for T.J. Warren revolved around what he could offer the Suns on the offensive end. Williams was hired as Phoenix’s head coach just before Warren was traded to the Indiana Pacers, but even he had a basic understanding of what to expect.
“The thing that I’ve always saw with him is his ability to just get a bucket,” Williams said. “He can score the ball, and he’s got size. Even in the game we played against him in Brooklyn, when he touched the ball, you just kinda knew you were in trouble. And he can score in a number of ways.”
Warren is proving as much now that he’s getting extended minutes and being put in positions where his midrange prowess can really shine. But much like another bucket-getting arrival in Ross, Warren’s playoff viability was always going to come down to whether the Suns can survive his minutes on defense. The defensive execution and results haven’t always been there, but the effort has.
Early T.J. Warren minutes & there's a clear sense of urgency in his efforts, particularly on the defensive end
— Stephen PridGeon ☯️🏁 (@StayTrueSDot3) March 23, 2023
Whenever Phoenix struggles offensively, Williams will often cite their need to get stops. Closing out defensive possessions can not only ignite a fast break, but it allows the Suns to push the tempo and not have to operate against a set defense. As the saying goes, their best offense is their defense.
On Saturday against Philly, Warren proved his coach’s point on one fourth-quarter play that helped open the floodgates. Challenging Shake Milton’s shot, Warren forced an airball before coming right back down the court and drilling a 3:
That is T.J. Warren’s path to playing time once the postseason rolls around. If he can just hold his ground defensively and avoid becoming a pigeon, he may have a chance of seeing the floor, even when Kevin Durant and Deandre Ayton return.
Williams acknowledged that both Warren and Ross have had to work to adjust defensively, but believes they’re making progress and that Warren has the size to be switchable on that end.
“Figuring out when to switch and when not to switch is something that can be tough,” Williams said. “When you’re in a shift defense the way we play it, sometimes you give up cuts behind you, because you’re shifting to take away ball penetration. So that part is a work in progress, but I think just based on the coaches who work with them, I think they’re getting better at it.”
The Suns’ bench lineups have been predictably unpredictable over the last few weeks. With so many new arrivals, not to mention a force like Durant being inserted and then quickly removed from the equation, Williams has had to tweak and adapt on a game-to-game basis.
“Do I have it down? No,” Williams said. “But I think we have a better idea of what we have. Sometimes when you go through adversity, it forces you to learn things you wouldn’t have learned had you not gone through it.”
Asked Monty whether he’s gotten more clarity on his bench during this stretch: “Do I have it down? No. But I think we have a better idea of what we have. Sometimes when you go through adversity, it forces you to learn things you wouldn’t have learned had you not gone through it.” pic.twitter.com/zMYIWwiVDl
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) March 26, 2023
The second unit’s inconsistency hasn’t helped Williams establish an ironclad rotation, nor has the nature of their skill-sets, which are either offense-heavy or defense-heavy. Durant’s return will once again disrupt the current pecking order, sending Craig back to the bench where Warren will be waiting to compete for minutes yet again.
But if Tony Buckets can just be passable on the defensive end, his growing comfort on offense could help swing the bench minutes in a playoff game or two — a rare silver lining from a star like Durant getting hurt during the pivotal home stretch.
“I probably wouldn’t have played T.J. this much had Kevin not been out, because we felt like we had a bit of a rhythm and a lineup that I was just used to,” Williams admitted. “And that may have been a bit close-minded. With Kevin being out and coaches kind of getting on me a little bit, they said I needed to look at [Warren]. And we’re giving T.J. a look, and he’s producing.”