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Over the past month, the Suns’ youth movement mostly has focused on rookies Tyler Ulis and Derrick Jones Jr., as well as second-year forward Alan Williams. An element that’s gone somewhat overlooked: The improvement of T.J. Warren.

As the Suns depart on a six-game trip, this is an important stretch for the third-year forward. It’s not unreasonable to think he’s competing against the upcoming NBA draft. Two freshman small forwards – Duke’s Jayson Tatum and Kansas’ Josh Jackson – are expected to leave school, and both could be available when the Suns are on the clock in June. Warren, however, has made a case he can be the team’s small forward of the future.

“His field-goal percentage from the All-Star break is off the charts,” General Manager Ryan McDonough said. “He’s improved his rebounding, especially defensively, which is what we need with (center) Tyson (Chandler) out and (coach) Earl (Watson) playing a smaller lineup. We’ve been very happy with his progress.”

The 6-foot-8 Warren started this season strong but missed nearly a month because of a minor head injury. Upon return, Warren again took his spot among Phoenix’s starting five, but Watson often turned to the defensive-minded P.J. Tucker in the second half. Once the Suns dealt Tucker to Toronto at the trade deadline, Warren had the small-forward spot to himself.

RELATED: Rookie Tyler Ulis shows growth in Suns loss

Here’s what he’s done:

  • In 12 games, he’s averaged 17.5 points, shooting 61.3 percent from the field. Warren’s at his best in the mid-range and he’s reflected as much, shooting 66.7 percent from 2-point range over this stretch. In Friday’s loss to Orlando, Warren also sank 10 of 10 from the foul line, marking only the third time in his career he has attempted 10-plus free throws in a game.
  • He’s averaged 7.7 rebounds, remarkable considering Warren averaged just 3.5 during 14 games in January. Some of this no doubt is due to workload and position. Warren’s minutes have increased from 29 to 34.3 per game since the All-Star break. In smaller lineups, he also has shifted to power forward, putting him in better position to rebound. Even so, Warren has showed a stronger desire to get the ball.

“What I like best is he’s getting defensive rebounds in traffic over starting power forwards,” Watson said. “To me, that’s what stands out. His motor to get defensive rebounds has changed dramatically. Hopefully, we can continue to build on that.”

Warren said he’s tried to assert himself more, adding that the rebounding aggression has improved his production on both offense and defense.

“Everybody knows I can score, so I just want to do all the other things that keep me on the floor,” he said. “Keep the coaches trusting me, and obviously defense and rebounding are big keys. Scoring will come. That’s what I came into the league (known) for. I know that will never go away from me.”

Watson is pleased.

“He’s making positive steps,” he said. “The double-doubles (Warren has two this month) are key. If he can play at that level or close to that level, he’s definitely taking steps to becoming our starting small forward. But as you know, this thing is fluid. We’re so young, it’s fluid at almost every position if you think about it. And with the draft coming, who knows what could happen.”

MORE: Watson: Suns need to keep learning how to win

Bledsoe deals with shutdown

With the Suns (22-47) out of playoff contention, point guard Eric Bledsoe knew it was possible the team would shut him down for the rest of the season. Even so, last week’s decision still stung.

“It hurt, but that’s their job,” Bledsoe said of management. “I just have to fight through it and keep getting better.”

Bledsoe had last season cut short because of knee surgery. This season, he played his best basketball. In 66 games, Bledsoe averaged career highs of 21.1 points and 6.3 assists. He also got to the foul line a career-best 458 times, shooting a career-best 84.7 percent.

“I feel great,” said Bledsoe, who had battled recent soreness in his left knee. “I prepared all summer for this. I’ve been eating right, getting my body right, working out, doing everything so I can sustain over the entire season, and I did that.”

Moving forward, he shifts to an off-court role.

“It’s important to support my brothers,” Bledsoe said. “I’ve been playing with them all season. Unfortunately, I can’t get out there with them but I can give them advice.”

Contact Doug Haller at 602-444-4949 or at [email protected]. Follow him at Twitter.com/DougHaller.

Sunday’s game

Suns at Pistons

When: 1:30 p.m.

Where: The Palace of Auburn Hills, Detroit.

TV/radio: FSAZ/KTAR 98.7 FM

Detroit update: The Pistons (33-36) have lost three in a row to fall a game behind Miami for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Their issue: Scoring. Detroit has shot 38.1 percent over their losing streak. “No one is trying to miss shots out there, but we can’t hit a thing right now,” coach Stan Van Gundy told reporters after Friday’s home loss to Toronto. The Pistons are 22-14 at home.


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