TJ Warren’s pre-draft scouting report was that he is unathletic, can’t hit 3’s, plays questionable defense, never passes, and scores loads of buckets inside the arc for a SF punctuated by his incredible floater. This didn’t strike me as a lock bust because I have a soft spot for weirdos and you never know how they are going to translate. But I simply couldn’t envision how an unathletic wing dominates inside the arc against NBA competition without any other notable strengths, so I paid him little regard. This was a mistake, as the correct approach should have been to figure out how an unathletic wing dominated inside the arc in the NCAA. I finally got to scout him in summer league and I am completely captivated by his game.
The reasons why weird prospects have appeal is because they normally are doing something right that nobody else is, and you never know how their special skill interacts with NBA competition. This is especially true for scoring, as scoring comes in a wide range of styles and requires scouting to understand each player’s method of attack. This is triply true for TJ Warren, who has the most beautiful scoring game of any prospect I have ever watched.
You need to have some sort of special powers to dominate inside the arc the way TJ did, and it’s clear that his special powers are excellent footwork, coordination, and body control to go with feathery touch anywhere within 12 feet, especially when he’s on the run. He by far the most polished scoring prospect in the class. But what makes him exceptionally appealing is that he hardly ever wastes any time or motion at all with the ball. He has a knack for catching the ball in a position to score, as he can get where he’s going and get his shot off in 0 or 1 dribbles most of the time. If he’s taking 2 or more dribbles it’s because that’s the required amount of dribbles to get to the rim. Every time he dribbles it’s with direction and purpose. The one time I saw him dribble more than 2 times in the half-court: he tried to go left, it wasn’t there, he pulled back and waited for a screen, and then went right and crisply got off his floater. Even though plan A wasn’t there, he did no aimless dribbling, just pulled back and executed plan B. But every other time plan A worked for him and he got his shot off.
The precision that he operates with is stunning, and it also applies to his shot creation. He never wastes an opportunity to get off a quality shot. It has been noted that he racked up lots of transition baskets and putbacks, but that’s not a coincidence. He doesn’t crash the offensive glass for rebounds, he crashes for putbacks. He was able to get putbacks by tapping the ball in, catching the ball and putting it back while hanging in the air, and he even had a perfectly timed tip slam where the unathletic label appeared to be dead wrong.
I have been a common critique of transition scoring, but it doesn’t mean it should be totally discounted. If somebody dominates in transition there is a reason for it, and TJ’s offensive excellence shines through in transition. He bolts up the floor as soon as his team procures the defensive rebound, and once he catches the ball he is deadly. He doesn’t need to beat the defense down the floor, he gracefully steps around whatever defender is in the paint and lays it in. His floater helps as he can always find a way to get off a shot, and he’s so good on the run that he doesn’t require a getting all the way to the rim for a look to be good for him. This is a stark contrast to Andrew Wiggins’ style of beating his opponent down the floor for an uncontested dunk in college which did not translate to summer league.
In the half-court, he moves exceptionally well without the ball and scored on a handful of cuts to the rim. He excels at getting to spots on the floor where he can score as soon as he receives the ball. This is a stark contrast to Jabari Parker’s style of catching the ball, dribbling aimlessly, and chucking whatever comes his way. Other times he’ll attack and when he gets as far as he can he throws up a floater. It seems that he can get off a high volume of 40%+ shots without turning it over, and his floater is so good now who knows how high it peaks. Maybe he is able to generate an endless stream of 45-50% shots in his prime to make him an elite weapon in both transition and the half-court. His college mid-range scoring stats are phenomenal– he made 43.4% of non-rim 2’s as a sophomore and 45.3% for his career. That’s better than any other prospect in the draft, and way better than non-Doug McDermott prospects. It’s hard to say how many of these are on 5 foot runners that will be harder to create in the NBA vs. the widely available mid-range shots and 12 foot floaters, but it’s clear that his mid-range potential is pretty awesome. He also only had 1 shot blocked in summer league, and even without great size or length he has a feel for finding daylight in traffic.
He does take a fair amount of mid-range shots, and it’s not always in the smartest spots. For instance he took a pullup jumper one foot inside the arc in transition, and while he made it that’s not the best shot. While his level of efficiency with respect to movement and motion is pristine, he does not appear to have a machine like level of efficient decision making on the court.
Further, the concept of creating for others off the dribble appears to be a foreign concept to him. When he catches the ball on the perimeter and has nowhere to go he will quickly swing it to a teammate. And when he gets the ball in transition and feels a teammate has a better path to attack, he will give it up. His lone assist was on a transition alley oop to Archie Goodwin. He also had a nice pass in transition where he found his teammate two dribbles from the rim, although he did not get credited for the assist. But when he attacks off the dribble he’s doing it for himself, much like Andrew Wiggins. That said I don’t find it to be nearly as much of a turnoff, because I can’t say that this is an inefficient means of attacking. Wiggins can stagnate the offense and drain the shot clock by taking 10 dribbles before he decides he’s going nowhere and then kick it out. He can also turn it over by taking 10 dribbles, because that amount of motion creates a lot of opportunity for things to go wrong. But because Warren is so quick and incisive with his moves, he almost never turns it over, he almost always gets his shot off, and it appears to rarely have a worse outcome than a 40% floater. Warren’s form of black holing does not appear to be particularly harmful.
Defensively, it’s hard to say whether Warren will be above or below average for an NBA wing. He appears to be competent defensively, and he appears to want to be good. Jeff Hornacek noted that in their drills he successfully stopped a point guard, a small forward, and a center, showing off his versatility. He had a good steal rate in college and it shows as he has good anticipation in the passing lanes and quick hands. His size is solid for a SF: he is 6’8.25″ with somewhat short arms at 6’10.25″, but he’s a lean 220. I can’t definitively say he’s strong, but strength did not appear to be an issue for him as he proved adept at finishing through contact and never really got pushed around the same way that 6’8″ 218 pound Doug McDermott did. His athleticism appears to be solid. It stood out that he is quick to recover when beat. On one play he was beat on a backdoor cut and recovered for a block. On another play he went for a steal 1 on 2 in transition, and he even though he failed and the ball was passed forward to the rim, he was somehow able to recover for the block. I don’t really have much of a feel for his quickness, as he was certainly getting to his spots offensively but that may just be due to his precise movement. DX’s video shows him getting beat a number of times on the perimeter for NC State, although in fairness he was carrying an insane 35.5% usage. I feel like he has good defensive potential, but could also turn out to be not good at all on this end.
It is worth pondering the opportunity cost of his style of play. He consistently crashes the offensive boards, which is certainly worthwhile considering how good he is at putbacks. But it detracts from transition defense when he chooses to do that instead of hauling back the other way. And while he doesn’t seem to regularly cheat with his transition leaks, it might happen on occasion and be correlated with his lackluster DRB%. Also he only shot 31.5% from 3 and 65.4% from FT in college: it’s not certain that he can space the floor from beyond the NBA arc. If he’s playing on the perimeter without spacing or creating for others, how much does that adversely affect his teammates? I don’t think he’s wrong to constantly be seeking buckets since he’s so uniquely talented at it. But he may be a player who posts awesome stats but in reality is slightly less awesome due to all of the minor tradeoffs in his approach. It doesn’t make me like him any less, it is merely an idea to consider as he progresses.
The reason why this isn’t a particularly big deal to me is because it doesn’t impede his upside. He achieved such mastery of 2 point scoring at such a young age, it’s worth wondering if he can apply whatever talent helped him in the process to fill out the other areas of his game. For all of the perfect efficiencies of his interior attacking, his 3 point shot has poor mechanics as he doesn’t square up and often dips the ball down to his knees before releasing. If a shot doctor worked with him, why wouldn’t the coordination and precision that enables him to be so lethal also expedite the growth of his 3 point shot? Can he apply it to passing and defense as well? If so I would say his upside is exceptionally high.
He’s difficult to project, because players that take a lot of shots have large swings based on how many they make. It seems somebody who has a knack for creating high % garbage buckets and doesn’t take many shots worse than 40% or turn it over a bunch will likely score efficiently, but who knows how he will actually look in the NBA. Kelly Olynyk had a similarly feathery touch in the paint that dominated summer league, and it took him a couple of months to get up to speed with the NBA game. Perhaps Warren struggles similarly or never gets fully up to speed at all. Also it’s hard to say what to expect of his 3 point shooting, passing, and defense. He is right on the fence where he could become a spacer, or he could not. He appears to have the smarts to become a good passer, but I’m not sure if it’s something that will actually happen or is even necessary given his style. His defense is a bit of a mystery too. If it becomes good he can more than offset the opportunity cost of his o-reb crashes and transition leakouts. But if he becomes bad he could be a Kevin Martin type player who isn’t good due to offsetting his scoring efficiency by being bad at everything else.
Overall I feel that he’s probably going to be good, and he has a realistic possibility of becoming great. Whether his approach is conscious or natural, his ability to maximize easy buckets and minimize wasted motion to create endless 40%+ shots requires a truly elite feel for the game. He is a unique player with a unique talent, and if he becomes great he will provide a hopelessly optimistic comparison for every crappy mid-range gunner prospect that ever enters the draft in the future. He’s clearly the best scoring prospect in the draft, and he is an awesome value at 14th overall that makes me like Ryan McDonough and want to forgive him for taking Alex Len over Nerlens Noel. I think Sam Hinkie made a big mistake by taking Dario Saric over Warren, and the Bulls made a bigger mistake by drafting Doug McDermott to be fix their scoring woes when such a superior scoring prospect (who also might play defense!) was available. I don’t know precisely where I’d re-rank him on a re-draft, but the only player who I’m certain is more talented is Joel Embiid. I think TJ is good and Suns fans should feel good and I feel bad that I didn’t bother to scout him before the draft. All that’s left now is to root for him to rock and spread the nickname of “The Surgeon” since that’s how he handles his business on offense.