No more Bojangles’. And no more Chinese food. That’s what North Carolina State forward T.J. Warren decided in the preseason. The self-imposed boycott of fried foods was part of his effort to take his conditioning to an elite level.
It worked. Between the end of his freshman season and the start of his sophomore year, Warren shed 20 pounds. He also built up his leg strength and his endurance by staying in the gym an extra 45 minutes after every team workout. Alone, he’d ride a stationary bike or work on his mid-range shooting game, doing catch-and-shoot drills from the 15-to-17-foot range until his legs and lungs burned.
The new diet and additional time in the gym paid off for the 6-foot-8, 215-pound sophomore forward. This season, Warren led the ACC in scoring (24.8 points per game); field goal percentage (.532); and offensive rebounds (95). Earlier this week he was named ACC Player of the Year.
During a nine-game stretch at the end of the season Warren averaged 30.4 points per game. And in back-to-back games he topped 40, something that hadn’t been done in the ACC in 57 years. No defense — zone, box-and-one, double-teams — has managed to slow down the Wolfpack’s one-man scoring machine.
Simply put, when T.J. Warren operates with a basketball it’s like Johnny Depp acting on the big screen: He has incredible range; he makes the difficult look easy; and he always manages to leave the scene looking smooth.
Last night in North Carolina State’s 67-58 victory over Miami, Warren led all scorers with 24 points on 9-of-18 shooting. At times, his superior skills created the illusion that he wasn’t playing at full speed. But don’t be fooled. He just has more gears than most guys. In one sequence, Warren out-hustled two Hurricane players for a loose ball. Then he spun, took two dribbles and snaked his way up and around two more defenders to release a soft floater in the lane.
His fundamentals — squared shoulders, a perfectly timed leap, and a textbook angled wrist on the release — were flawless. Yet NBA moves of this nature have become so commonplace for Warren that head coach Mark Gottfried did little more than clap his hands as Warren’s shot arced over outstretched hands and fell through the net.
But so many of Warren’s baskets this season have come after he’s used off-the-ball screens to get himself open. When moving without the ball, Warren is like a gun fighter who always has his hand on the trigger. Any sign of the slightest opening and Warren fires. Especially when he’s within 15 feet of the basket.
The son of N.C. State guard Tony Warren (’77-79), T.J. has certainly inherited some of his natural gifts. But he’s also got his father’s work ethic. T.J. says the mid-range game is a lost art. While he constantly sees young guys in the gym dunking, Warren spends hours shooting mid-range jumpers.
He also spends a lot of time alone practicing off-balance shots while getting bumped by imaginary defenders. This self-taught ability to simulate defensive contact has heightened his sense of anticipation for what defenders will do in game situations.
“It’s a natural thing for me,” Warren said. “I’ve learned to adjust my shot to athletic defenders or to small defenders.”
North Carolina State’s 67-58 victory over the Hurricanes gives Warren and the Wolfpack an opportunity to avenge a heartbreaking one-point loss to Syracuse at the Carrier Dome back in February.
In the first outing, North Carolina State almost didn’t make it to Syracuse thanks to a snowstorm that grounded the Wolfpack’s plane. Unsure when the weather would let up, team members were eventually told to return to their dorms and await word.
Instead, Warren went to the gym, where he ran and did shooting drills until nearly midnight. Alone, he made awkward shots and resorted to imagining Syracuse defenders in Jim Boeheim’s suffocating zone defense.
After N.C. State finally made it to Syracuse, Warren hit 11-of-22 shots, dropping 23 points on the then unbeaten, top-ranked team. He accounted for nearly half of North Carolina State’s total output. And with 13 seconds remaining, the Wolfpack had the ball and a one-point lead. But they turned the ball over after inbounding it. Moments later, C.J. Fair scored to give Syracuse a 56-55 victory.
“That was a tough one,” Warren said. “It lingered with us. I’ve been looking forward to playing them again.”
After last night’s Miami game, Warren found himself in a familiar position — in the glare of lights, surrounded by a throng of media holding cameras and recording devices. A quiet individual who prefers to keep to himself, Warren doesn’t like the spotlight. He’d rather just play and then leave the building with his headphones over his ears.
But today the spotlight on T.J. Warren will be brighter than ever when North Carolina State and Syracuse square off in a nationally televised game at 7 p.m. This time the Wolfpack will be in front of a much friendlier crowd. And Warren is hungry.
“I’m ready,” Warren said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s a great opportunity. And we are going to be amped up.”