RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina State’s T.J. Warren has thrived all season despite facing defenses geared to stop him.
The sophomore is leading the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring by a big margin and is the top scorer among all power-conference teams. He can make putting the ball in the basket look easy with his versatility for Mark Gottfried’s Wolfpack heading into Sunday’s game against Georgia Tech.
“Very few guys can make every shot,” Gottfried said. “What I mean by that, it’s a floater, it’s a short corner shot, it’s a free throw, it’s a 3, it’s finishing on the break. … There are so many different ways that the guy gets his baskets. Not a lot of players can do that so I think he’s unique in that regard.”
Warren, a 6-foot-8 forward, is averaging 22.2 points and shooting 50.3 percent for N.C. State (12-7, 2-4 ACC). His average is three points better than the league’s No. 2 scorer, Duke star freshman Jabari Parker, and he entered the week tied for seventh nationally with BYU junior Tyler Haws.
“Guys try to get a little physical and play me a lot of different ways, try to double team me,” Warren said. “But it really doesn’t bother me. My teammates trust me. … I don’t need a lot of dribbles to create a shot.”
Gottfried noticed Warren’s natural scoring ability immediately when he saw him during the summer recruiting season months after taking the N.C. State job in spring 2011. Now, halfway through Gottfried’s third season, Warren has scored nearly the same amount of points as the team’s next two scorers combined despite missing Monday’s win against Maryland with a sprained left ankle.
Warren is practicing this week and is probable to face the Yellow Jackets (11-8, 2-4).
It’s a big leap from last year, when Warren averaged about 12 points in a supporting role behind upperclassmen C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown, Richard Howell and Scott Wood. He shot an ACC-best 62 percent and scored in double figures in 24 of 35 games.
When that quartet departed along with the transfer of freshman Rodney Purvis, Warren was one of three returnees who even played in a game last season. Gottfried challenged Warren to get in better shape in preparation for being the Wolfpack’s top scoring threat and the focus of opposing defenses.
He dropped about 20 pounds to around 215 this year, cutting out fast food, Chinese food and Sprites in favor of salads, fruits and water. It made him a step quicker and more explosive, while Warren said it’s also eased knee pain that bothered him last season.
“I think it starts with (Gottfried) and his emphasis on T.J. getting in great shape changing his body and really elevating his game from his freshman year to his sophomore year,” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said. “And then you give credit to T.J. Warren for the fact in this day and age, it’s hard to get guys to understand that and to actually go out there and do it. He’s done it, and he’s carried them in a lot of instances.”
Warren has scored at least 20 points in 14 of 18 games with three 30-point performances, including a career-high 32 points against East Carolina in December. N.C. State is 10-3 when he reaches the 20-point mark this season and 11-5 when he leads the team in scoring.
Warren has taken nearly 29 percent of the Wolfpack’s shots, yet still ranks fourth in the ACC in shooting percentage.
Warren has improved his free-throw shooting from 54 percent last year to nearly 73 percent this year, and he’s the team’s leading rebounder (7.3) while playing 34 minutes a game. His only struggle has been from 3-point range, where he’s shooting just 21 percent (13-for-61).
“He loves pressure,” fifth-year senior Jordan Vandenberg said. ” … He’s reliable. He does what he needs to do. His defense is pretty good. He’s just a competitor. That’s what you need on the team. You don’t want to have someone that shies away from the spotlight. You want to have someone step up and do what they need to do.”