T.J. Warren: The best player you’ve never heard of

T.J. Warren averaged 24.9 points and 7.1 rebounds on his way to becoming ACC Player of the Year this past season.

He was the ACC Player of the Year, and set multiple scoring records at NC State, a school that produced the likes of David Thompson and Rodney Monroe. He joined a select group of just three players who led the ACC in both scoring and field-goal percentage.

And after a four-point game against Virginia on January 15, he would not score fewer than 20 points the rest of the season. He hit the 30-point mark four times and the 40-point mark twice, averaging nearly 25 points a game on the year and getting better and better even as teams had more and more time to prepare to face him.

Yet when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver calls his name tonight — which he likely will in the first 10-15 picks of the NBA Draft — there are far too many basketball fans across the country who will say, ‘Who?’

His name, of course, is T.J. Warren.

And once you’ve seen him play a time or two, you won’t forget it.

Former NC State standout Julius Hodge remembers when he first met the 6-foot-9 expressionless forward.

Hodge — who had already graduated from college by then and was playing professionally — was back in town and went over to a local high school to play some 5-on-5. He knew he’d be able to score at will against the Raleigh-area high schoolers. And he did.

"But there was this young guy on the opposing team and he just kept scoring," Hodge said. "No matter what I was trying to do, he would always find a way to score — a lot. He just kept knocking down shots.

"I was like, ‘What the hell?’"

Of course, it was Warren.

Flying under the radar, though, is nothing new for him.

Warren’s freshman season at NC State in 2012-13 featured him as a de facto fifth option amongst a group that included C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown and Richard Howell. But he was able to provide a scoring spark and shot over 62 percent from the floor, averaging 12.1 points.

The Wolfpack was a preseason top-10 team, though, and it had a disappointing finish. Warren’s excellent season was lost in the shuffle, and many of his teammates either graduated or went pro. Well, Options 1-4 did. Leaving Warren to move up to Option 1.

It seems silly in hindsight, but the biggest question entering Warren’s prolific sophomore season was if he’d be ready to carry that kind of a load, particularly when he was the focus of opposing defenses.

"He had a really nice freshman year. He had some really good moments. But I don’t think anyone expected him to have the kind of year he had his sophomore year and become one of the greatest scorers that I’ve seen in 25 years," former NC State point guard Chris Corchiani said.

The best way to carry the team for Warren, as it turns out, was by lightening his own burden.

To weigh 240 pounds at 6-9 is not that bad. But Warren is naturally leaner, and he wasn’t carrying the weight the way he needed to. A gym rat by nature, Hodge said Warren spent the summer of 2013 doing individual skill work and then right after, he would ride the exercise bike for an hour.

"It was almost instant — within a month, month and a half, he had a completely different body," Hodge said.

Leaner and quicker at 218 pounds, Warren was ready. He got there mentally, too, as some former NC State players — including his father Tony, who played at NC State before having an NBA career of his own — counseled him about being more mature.

Corchiani was one who offered Warren advice. He had known Warren since he was a kid, and had watched him grow up. He knew what a big undertaking it was going to be for the shy, soft-spoken basketball phenom to be "the guy".

Warren handled the obstacle the same way he did opposing defenses in the ACC.

He studied it, assessed it, and figured out a way to overcome it.

To call Warren a pure scorer somewhat oversimplifies his skill set, although it’s hard not to when he’s just so good at it.

"Somebody that didn’t see T.J. play as much as I have, you would see a guy averaging 25 points in the ACC and you would think his team is awful and he just shoots the ball a bunch of times and shoots a low percentage," Hodge said. "But T.J. was quite the opposite. He was on a good team in the ACC. He didn’t always have to shoot a lot to get his numbers. He shot a really high percentage, and he could score in so many different ways."

Yes, he knows how to score. But his efficiency is not an accident, even though it may have looked that way sometimes last year as he snuck into the paint from the foul line and got one arm up in a tangle around the basket to tip in a teammate’s miss.

Or as he drove into the lane, unperturbed by the defense collapsing around him as he softly tossed up a floater that caressed the sides of the rim before it fell through. According to Draft Express, Warren hit 69 percent of his non-floaters at the rim — the highest percentage in Division I.

"Probably the most impressive thing to me is if you only watched him one time, you wouldn’t see this, but he was always in the right place. The ball found him on the court, whether it was just knowing the angles of basketball or knowing where the ball was going to come off the rim," Corchiani said.

"If you watched the game, you’d say, ‘Well he got lucky.’ No. Throughout the season, that ball just ends up in his hands all the time. That’s just a knack for being just a clever player.

"To me, that’s just having a very high basketball IQ. He just always got open. You’ve just got to know where the defense is. You’ve got to put yourself in the right position. But no, that’s just an instinct that he has that’s so uncanny. It’s amazing to see game after game, he’s always in the right place. He knows when to make a cut. He knows when to go to the offensive glass."

Even though Warren was far and away NC State’s best player, it wasn’t like the Wolfpack necessarily ran a lot of plays specifically for him. But when he got the ball in the flow of the offense, it was fascinating to watch him work.

He wasn’t breaking anyone’s ankles with his crossover, but he had one — that, a behind-the-back dribble or a spin move were all he needed to throw his defender off just enough an open lane towards the basket, where he’d either finish at the rim or maybe he’d get his defender leaning one way, then stop and pull up for a mid-range jumper.

Hodge has played plenty of pick-up both with and against Warren since meeting him as a high school sophomore. And he’s much happier when Warren is on his team. He’d rather not have to guard him.

"If he doesn’t have the ball, you can tend to relax and forget about him. Then he’ll cut to the basket and throw up a teardrop or get an open three or an offensive rebound and finish it," Hodge said. "He’s really good at getting the ball on the floor 1-2 times and then going into a Euro-step into his tear drop. You just have to always keep an eye on him."

And you’d better keep an eye on him in transition, too. Warren’s instincts were as good on the break as they were in the half court, if not better. Few saw the court as well in transition as well as Warren. Whether he was running down to fill a lane or taking it coast-to-coast himself, he rarely made mistakes in that area.

He was often starting the break himself, too. As attached to each other as he and the basketball seemed to be on the offensive end, Warren seemingly couldn’t get enough of it on defense either. He developed a knack for either swiping balls away from unsuspecting opponents up top or getting in the passing lane at the exact right moment and taking it the other way for an uncontested slam.

It was practically Warren’s patented move on defense, and he was among the league leaders in steals. Entering the draft, that’s one of the knocks on Warren.

Hodge doesn’t think that’s fair, though.

"I think some of the scouts, where they go wrong when it comes to T.J. is the defense," Hodge said. "He plays the (passing) lanes really well off the ball. On the ball, he keeps his guys in front of him. He doesn’t take plays off. I think he needs to get better in terms of weak-side defense, but in terms of being on-the-ball defense and getting in passing lanes, he does a really good job of it. So I always thought that was a critique that was a bit false."

Warren’s pre-draft buzz has been mostly positive, though. Probably because many around the NBA are discovering just how good Warren actually became this season.

Yes, Warren flew under the radar nationally. But his own shyness contributed to that.

Hodge, who never lacked in the personality department, knew how far that would’ve gotten Warren, who was always reserved with the media, careful and economical with his words, speaking so softly that reporters often had to huddle around him tightly — which certain didn’t make him any more comfortable.

That’s who Warren is, though.

"If he had a bigger personality, he would’ve caught on nationally quicker than what he did. But that’s T.J.," Hodge said. "It’s not always about having a huge personality. Sometimes you want the quiet guys that are just going to go to work every day, chop wood and make it happen. He’s one of those guys."

As Warren’s stats started to get more and more gaudy throughout last season, both Corchiani and Hodge were fielding calls from friends around the country about him.

"I had a number of friends who were like, ‘What’s this guy, T.J. Warren? What’s he about? Is he that good?’ I think he flew under the radar. I still think that a large part of the nation that is just an average viewer of college basketball really does’t know who T.J. Warren is," Corchiani said.

Hodge got a call from an NBA executive, who wanted to know about Warren’s game and asked Hodge if Warren was a "Ryan Gomes type" at the college level.

"You haven’t seen him play since last year, huh?" Hodge responded.

He admitted that no, he hadn’t.

Hodge told the executive that Hodge was more Paul Pierce than Gomes, and that Warren had to be seen to be believed.

"Once he did, he gave me a call back and he said, ‘Julius, you were right’," Hodge said.

Since the scrutiny of Warren increased, inevitably, so did the critiques. But aside from the defense, and him being a "tweener" — not really a rebounding power forward at 6-9, but maybe not quick enough to guard other NBA small forwards — the most fascinating is that he’s "unconventional".

He is that. His form on his jumper isn’t a thing of beauty. Not all of his floaters are artistic, and there were times last year when he forced the issue a bit, even though he didn’t have a lot of help. There were entire games when he had half or more of his team’s total points.

Hodge said that he not only thinks Warren is NBA-ready — he also thinks Warren could have come off the bench as a scorer for an NBA team LAST year and been successful.

Corchiani feels pretty confident about Warren’s NBA future, too.

"He does one thing that all teams need — he puts the ball in the basket," Corchiani said. "I just think whoever gets T.J. is going to get a proven scorer for a number of years . I don’t know if his potential is as great as some of the guys that are probably going in front of him, but he, to me, is a solid, can’t-miss 10-year vet."

And so when his friends asked about Warren, Corchiani’s answer was easy.

"I told them he was the greatest player that I have ever seen at NC State in 25 years. Though it was only one year, it was one of the greatest years I’ve seen any ACC player have in 25 years," Corchiani said. "Teams were putting their best defenders on him, keying on him, and he got it. Never forced it. That was probably the other thing that was so amazing was he always let the game come to him. For a guy to score that many points every game, there were very few forced shots. And you can’t say that about a lot of great scorers."

Every now and then, Warren would betray his emotions on the court with a grin or a chest-pound or even a glower at nothing or no one in particular. But more often than not, he was the same — even-keeled and deliberate, always analyzing the situation in front of him to figure out a way to stay a step ahead.

Moving without the ball isn’t "Top-10 Play" material. Neither is a steal and a slam, unless said slam is particularly acrobatic. And so if you haven’t heard of Warren before now, that’s okay.

You will.

"Towards the end of ACC play, everybody knew who he was," Hodge said. "It will be the same way in the NBA."