RALEIGH — If you want to know how good T.J. Warren will be this season for N.C. State, ask his coach.
Mark Gottfried has no problem talking about Warren’s role as the main scorer for the Wolfpack this season.
Point guard Tyler Lewis, Warren’s best friend on the team, will praise the sophomore forward from Durham as much as you’d like.
The only person you can’t ask about Warren and his role in a rebuilt Wolfpack lineup this season is Warren. Soft-spoken and shy by nature, Warren will brag about Lewis’ passing or the versatility of his new teammates, but he’d rather just pass when it comes to the topic everyone else wants to talk about.
“I’m just glad to be out there with my team,” Warren said. “We’ve got a brand-new team. Everybody is so excited to be out there.”
While mechanical, that’s a perfectly acceptable response but the original question was specifically about Warren.
“But what about your role?” Warren is asked again.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said after scoring 26 points in Saturday’s preseason win over Morehouse. “I just want to embrace it. It’s a great opportunity.”
Opportunity? Yes, with five of the top six scorers gone from last season, Warren, who averaged 12.1 points per game as a freshman, is the only regular contributor back from last year’s 24-win, NCAA team.
Offense will go through Warren
While Warren is hesitant to talk about his bigger role with the Wolfpack this season, he has prepared for it. Warren, who’s 6-foot-8 and 215 pounds, dropped 25 pounds in the offseason. As a result, he’s leaner, quicker and he has more stamina.
Gottfried has remolded the team with versatility as its best asset. Guards Desmond Lee, Ralston Turner and Cat Barber will all be counted on to defend and create points in transition. Warren has to be able to run with them, something he is better equipped to do at a lighter weight.
Warren’s versatility on offense will be key to the team’s success. The Wolfpack led the ACC in scoring last season, at 77.4 points per game, and Gottfried is not changing his up-tempo philosophy, or his high-post offense, because there’s a new cast of players.
Warren will be expected to wear many hats for this team. While last year’s team could count on 3-pointers from Scott Wood, Warren will get some of those plays this season. Last year’s team featured C.J. Leslie in the high post, Warren will get time there, too, especially with the preseason injury to forward Jordan Vandenberg.
Gottfried has been pleased with the offseason work by Warren to adapt his role as a sophomore.
“He’s a very dedicated guy who wants to have a great year,” Gottfried said. “He gets it, he understands now that this is a different team, the makeup of our team is different.”
Pack expecting to see growth
Being in better shape will help, Lewis said, and so will Warren’s attitude. There’s one more reason Lewis is confident Warren will have a big season.
“He knows the plays,” Lewis said.
There is an easiness between Lewis and Warren, who were friends before they signed in the same recruiting class together and were McDonald’s All-Americans together.
Lewis, from Statesville, and Warren, from Durham, grew up on the same summer circuit, admiring each other’s game from afar. The two clicked last year when they got to campus.
There’s a natural flow to their games. That was evident in short bursts last season, and even more so in this preseason.
Lewis can jab at Warren about his lack of knowledge of the offense last season. Warren came off the bench last season in 18 of the first 20 games, not for a lack of talent but he couldn’t keep the plays straight.
That might have actually helped Warren last season, Lewis said, because he would be in the wrong place but at the right time.
“Sometimes that’s why he got all the easy buckets,” Lewis joked.
But Warren has the offense down this season. In the Red-White game, they ran Wood’s staple 3-point play “corner” for him for an open shot. Since Vandenberg’s ankle injury, Warren has played mostly at the high post, in Leslie’s old spot.
Lewis said Warren has to know the offense because “most of the plays are for him.”
Bigger role, bigger expectations
Warren chalked up the problems learning the offense to youth. He said, when in doubt, he would just try to find an open spot for a rebound.
That worked most of the time. He was incredibly efficient last season. He made 62.2 percent of his field goals, which led the ACC and ranked fourth in the NCAA. He averaged 12 points on 8.5 shots a game while making only 54.2 percent of his free throws.
Warren had some big scoring games – 31 against Florida State, 22 against Penn State and 21 points three times. All five games were Wolfpack wins.
He also went stretches where he wasn’t as involved in the offense. He had two scoreless ACC games, against Georgia Tech and at Maryland, in a three-game stretch in January. He was also held without a point in the road win over Clemson in February.
As Gottfried put it, last year Warren had the luxury to “bob and weave” with his scoring. That won’t be the case this season.
“I understand that,” Warren said.
In a pair of preseason games, Warren was the central focus of the offense. He scored 26 points in both games, while still shooting 68 percent.
He also had 10 rebounds in each game, which delighted Gottfried.
“He can score as well as anybody in the country,” Gottfried said. “He just kind of finds ways to score. Sometimes it’s quiet. He doesn’t take bad shots, he shoots a terrific percentage.”
And then Gottfried added a challenge: “We need his rebounding this year, as much as anything,” the coach said.
This is why he returned
Two preseason games against Division II teams don’t make a season, Warren understands that. The rest of the ACC, which added three NCAA tournament regulars in Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, will be focused on him.
If there are any doubts about whether Warren can handle a new role and the pressure that comes with it, Lewis said there shouldn’t be.
“I know he can be ‘The Guy’ and he’s going to be our guy,” Lewis said. “There’s no question about it.”
The Wolfpack, which has been to the NCAA tournament in both of Gottfried’s seasons, has been picked to finish 10th in the 15-team league. Expectations are low for this team, which is fine by Warren.
“With this team, it’s going to be really fun,” Warren said. “This team is so excited. Our chemistry is amazing.”
Being with Lewis and this group, with the opportunity to be “The Guy” is the reason Warren came back for his sophomore season.
He considered a jump to the NBA, and was actually rated ahead of the four players who left after the 2012-13 season, but decided college was too much fun.
“You only do this once and coming back felt good for me,” Warren said.
How many more seasons he will be at N.C. State, Warren won’t say.
“Whatever happens, happens,” Warren said. “I’m motivated and focused on this season and want to win as much as possible.”
And the less he has to talk about it, the happier he will be.