Warren’s career-high 32 leads NC State over ECU

T.J. Warren has led or shared the team scoring lead in every game but one this season for the Wolfpack.

RALEIGH, N.C — There’s no doubt that all NC State head coach Mark Gottfried had to do to get his team’s attention with East Carolina coming to town on Saturday would be to show them the tape of ECU’s game against Duke. 

But there’s a reason ECU played well against Duke. The Pirates (10-3) are pretty good, and certainly well-coached under Jeff Lebo. 

It showed early in Raleigh, as ECU led by nine points once and by seven-to-eight much of the first half before NC State made a run. And even after that, the Pirates didn’t go away.

This is part of Gottfried’s scheduling philosophy, though — bring good, experienced teams from mid-major conferences to Raleigh and test his young, talented group against them to see where they stand.

So far, with the exception of a loss to NC Central, pretty good. NC State is now 9-2 and has won seven in a row with a top-25 Missouri team coming to town next weekend. But for now, they’ve passed every test since Central and look like a steadily-improving group. 

1. NC State is great in transition, but it needs its defense to create offense.

And that’s what happened when the Wolfpack found themselves down by as many as nine points in the first half. 

In the first 13:48 of the first half, ECU hit 16-of-27 shots and had seven assists to one turnover. In the final 6:12 of the first half, East Carolina shot 0-of-6 from the field and turned it over four times.

Of the six shots East Carolina missed in that span, freshman big man BeeJay Anya blocked five of them. And his blocks led to six NC State points points (two fastbreak points, and plenty when NC State had an advantage, even in the halfcourt). 

NC State didn’t shoot lights out during that span. It made 7-of-13 shots in that span and 1-of-2 free throws, outscoring East Carolina 15-0 on the strength of its defense more than its offense.

It didn’t hurt that Anya, who has had his ups and downs as he’s struggled to get in shape and stay on the court, was the one who made it happen.

"I thought BeeJay in the first half changed the game," Gottfried said. "He gave us a great lift blocking shots, finished on the dunk down there on that little drop-off pass. I thought that changed things for us. Lennard (Freeman) ends up with the steal and Ralston (Turner) gets a steal and fast break. I thought BeeJay generated that run for us early."

His teammates agreed. And so did the fans, who went crazy for every Anya block, particularly after he wagged his finger Dikembe Mutombo-style at his victim. 

"I encourage BeeJay a lot. He’s been working hard throughout this season to get on the floor, and I’m proud of him," NC State leading scorer T.J. Warren said. "(He does) it all the time in practice so for it to translate it to the game, it’s great to see. For the fans and the guys on the bench, it’s just a lot of energy when they do positive things like that."

It’s not as if they’re just patronizing a scrappy walk-on type of contributor who is making some hustle plays, though. Anya was one of the best players in the state of North Carolina, and a four-star recruit ranked by Scout.com as the No. 7 center in the country coming out of high school a year ago.

As he tried to get back in shape at the beginning of this season, he wasn’t much of a factor at all. But his teammate, starting senior center Jordan Vandenberg, always knew what he was capable of doing.

"There was a bunch of practices where BeeJay made me look silly. BeeJay is a very, very talented player. He’s just working on his conditioning," Vandenberg said. "He can block shots. He has great vision. We haven’t had a chance to see that yet, but trust me, that kid can pass the ball a lot better than I can. 

"He’s just a great player. he’s got good energy. I can’t give him enough praise. The fact that he’s playing well, I couldn’t be more happy for him."

2. Jordan Vandenberg continues to be a difference-maker.

In the first half, T.J. Warren had most of NC State’s points, which is pretty much par for the course. But that’s true in wins or losses. Vandenberg, NC State’s seven-foot center, had three blocks in ten minutes and two points. But in the second half, he had 16 of his career-high 18 points on 8-of-8 shooting, and most of those shots were dunks. 

It’s pretty simple, really. East Carolina doesn’t have a lot of tall players on the roster. And Vandenberg has a little hop to him. So he would basically set himself up in position, rear end firmly planted on a significantly smaller opponent, and raise his arm in the air to indicate to his teammates that he was ready for a lob.

They would throw the lob. And he would dunk it.

"I know Vandenberg, when I just throw it up, he’s going to get it," Warren said. "He’s always active around the rim, with his length and him being seven foot, it’s just easier to throw it up there and I know he’s going to dunk it or make a nice little pass."

Basketball doesn’t have to be all that complicated sometimes, and when you have a seven-footer with some jumping ability, that is one of those times. 

"That’s not even a drawn-up play. That’s just like if I see a lane to the basket — I can stand all the way at the three-point line and if I think I see a lane, I’ll point up and if they see me, I’m running to the basket," Vandenberg said, shrugging. "It’s pretty simple. It works."

Indeed. And sometimes, there’s not really a good defense for it.

"We do it all the time in practice," Warren said. "It gets kind of annoying because you can’t stop it with our bigs. We just throw it up there and Jordan goes to get it every time."

Naturally, it’s not necessarily quite that simple. East Carolina’s zone — a style of defense a lot of teams are playing this year more than ever before, and with varying degrees of comfort — was looking at where the ball was. Vandenberg — even at seven feet tall — was able to become invisible. 

"If you get behind the zone, they don’t know what they’re doing. The fact that they did that twice without even just glancing back to see if I was still there, that was fine with me because because we ran the play again and I dunked the ball again," Vandenberg said. "Anyone’s invisible if no one’s looking."

And of course it’s not as simple as saying that the play can’t be stopped. But when ECU tried to stop it, the Pirates had to sacrifice something else. That’s just the way basketball works, especially if you’re at a skill or size deficit. 

"They put back in (Michael Zangari) and he was like kind of trying to tag me the whole time. That worked for them, but then that took them out of having help-side on the guards and everything. That was just a benefit to us in the long run," Vandenberg said.

3. It’s almost become an afterthought that T.J. Warren is going to score a lot of points. But he had a career-high 32 and was extremely impressive.

He’s a scoring machine. And as it takes his younger teammates some time to warm up and get confident, Warren is generally ready out of the gate. 

Warren has incredible touch around the basket, seemingly finishing every time he’s in close, and he’s a pretty good shooter from distance too, generally. (Although he’s a bit streakier in that department.)

He shot 14-of-23 from the field (12-of-15 from inside the three-point line) and scored 32 points in 39 minutes — and the 32nd point was scored with 10:51 to go. 

Warren has gotten even better since Vandenberg came back to the lineup, because it’s freed him up to play the three-position full-time. And he’s gotten even better still with the improvement of the freshmen bigs. Even with Vandenberg back, he’d still have to play in the post some. With the young big men becoming more trustworthy, he can spend all his time on the wing. 

"I didn’t feel our young freshmen — I wasn’t comfortable playing two of those guys together, so I played T.J. a lot more inside," Gottfried said. "I think with Jordan and even BeeJay coming along now a little bit more, it allows T.J. to play on the wing. It allows him to get out on the break. It allows him to defend a wing player instead of a post player. He’s just more comfortable there and we’re a better team with that lineup."

At times, he’s NC State’s only offense — get it to Warren, let him score. 

Not the most conventional zone offense, but it works. 

"We’re just focusing on getting better on offense because we get stagnant at times, but we’ve got T.J. Warren so throw him the ball, get him to score a couple of times and maybe they’ll get out of the zone," Vandenberg, always matter-of-fact, said.

NC State is at his best when others are scoring too, obviously, but it’s nice to know they have some insurance. "I think since I’ve been back, T.J. hasn’t scored less than 20 points in a game, so I expect that from him," Vandenberg said. "That gives a 20-point buffer against any team we’re playing, really. I haven’t seen a team slow him down yet."

He has 262 points in 11 games, in all of 377 minutes. And he’s doing it on 55.2 percent shooting.

Even if NC State finishes last in the league — which it won’t — he should still be in the ACC Player of the Year conversation as much as anyone else in the league, even Duke’s spectacular freshman Jabari Parker.