Fantasy Basketball: Was T.J. Warren's Early Surge Just a Mirage?

The third-year Suns forward has been a shadow of his former self since returning from a mysterious head injury. Are there reasons for optimism about Warren's fantasy production going forward?

Phoenix Suns forward T.J. Warren was one of the breakout stars of the early NBA season. But ever since his hot start was put on hold by a mysterious head injury that cost him nearly a month of playing time, Warren has gone from hitting shots to hitting fantasy waiver wires.

Warren's double-digit scoring ways have returned of late, but his production has dipped significantly overall. That's leaving many fantasy owners wondering if his early output was a flash in the pan.

Does a closer look at Warren's underlying numbers offer any optimism for the third-year player?

Tale of Two Samples

There's no sugarcoating the downturn for Warren. His post-injury output is a mere shadow of his early-year run.

First 13 games 13 32.3 15.6 45.8% 0.6 3.4 81.8% 4.3 1.0 1.9 0.3 1 17.7
Last 16 games 9 26.9 10.3 47.0% 0.4 1.8 69.0% 3.1 0.9 1 0.4 0.8 11.3

We've seen precipitous drops in most of the major categories that make up Warren's fantasy appeal: he's scoring less, tallying half the steals, and taking (and making) fewer free throws.

Quite encouragingly, though, Warren has not wavered in his field-goal efficiency, a major buoy to his fantasy value.

Usage Woes

That said, Warren's noticeable dip in field goal attempts since returning from injury seems like a red flag. And, indeed, there are some unsettling trends in Warren's usage since rejoining the Suns' starting rotation.

The table below sets Warren's usage rate and field-goal-attempt share from his peak November run (just before the injury) against his rates since returning to the starting lineup post-injury (Warren spent the first seven games after the injury coming off the bench).

November 9 30.9 22.3 25.6
Last 9 games 9 28.1 16.4 18.9

We're not seeing a significant decrease in minutes, but instead an eye-opening decrease in Warren's share of offensive touches.

Where are those touches going? They're not going to P.J. Tucker, who, despite a bump in minutes (and despite Earl Watson's well-documented love for his defensive tenacity), has maintained his usual 11 percent offensive share across both relevant samples.

No, those touches seem to be going, unsurprisingly, to the Suns' two best offensive players, Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker, who have each seen near-10-percent spikes in their respective usage over the past nine games relative to the Warren-heavy sample from November.

Arrow Slightly Up

The Suns' recent reliance on Booker and Bledsoe seems like good news for Warren's prospects moving forward.

The fact that Warren's waning usage with the starters has been funneled to the Suns' highest-usage players and not to Tucker (nor to up-and-comers Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, both of whose respective offensive shares have dipped slightly across the relevant sample) should lend some assurance that Warren's offensive role is not in major jeopardy.

What does this mean for his fantasy value moving forward?

A case can be made that, from a fantasy perspective, Warren has a narrow margin of error. Even at his very best, he's essentially a four-category producer, a source of bulk points and solid steals, with plus efficiency. Considering his usage at peak form, the one turnover per game is also a nice boost in nine-category leagues.

It might take the rumored PJ Tucker trade to see Warren get the minutes bump needed for him to return to the 20-point-per-game rate he seemed to promise at the outset of the season.

But even if Tucker sticks around, per-game averages of 16 points on 47 percent shooting seem very well within reach for Warren, and these numbers are certainly useful in standard leagues. If Warren can chip in a three-pointer and a couple of steals, along with a more steady three or so attempts from the line per game, he could very well be a top-75 asset by year's end.

It's fair to have Warren on a short leash as we approach the race for the fantasy playoffs. If his usage continues to crater, he'll be an easy cut soon enough. But he seems like a confident add or hold at the moment, and even a good speculative buy if you can get him cheap.