T.J. Warren has established himself as a freshman of few words, so perhaps his reaction to being inserted into the starting lineup for only the fifth time this season was to be expected: none whatsoever.
“T.J. never has a reaction,” N.C. State teammate Lorenzo Brown said.
With Warren in the starting lineup, but saving his talking for the court, and fellow freshman Tyler Lewis taking an expanded role, the pieces may be starting to fall into place for N.C. State.
Warren scored a career-high 31 points in a comfortable 84-66 win over Florida State that was notable not only for its relative ease – for a team that rarely does anything the easy way – but how it exemplified the continuing refinement of roles for the Wolfpack’s freshmen.
With only 7 1/2 players – Jordan Vandenberg may be twice the size of the average player but he plays half as much – it seems like it probably shouldn’t have been this hard to figure out this rotation. Still, it took the 2 1/2 games Brown missed with an injury, and the resulting opportunity for Lewis, to get a real sense of what works best for N.C. State.
“The people that are playing well on the defensive end and making smart plays on the offensive end are going to get the minutes,” N.C. State forward Scott Wood said. “I think that’s what coach (Mark) Gottfried is looking for.”
That means more Lewis – including a Lewis-Brown backcourt at times – even if he was limited to 10 minutes Tuesday, and less Rodney Purvis, who has started all but three games but played only 12 minutes off the bench against Florida State, coming off 16 minutes against Virginia Tech and 20 against Clemson.
And it means plenty of Warren, who was a monster Tuesday on both the inside and outside, and even a little Vandenberg, who played seven minutes against Florida State’s bevy of gargantuan big men and at least has five fouls to give (albeit, it should be noted, not at the offensive end, if you please).
“I felt like our team needed something different, right now,” Gottfried said. “I’ve told all three of those young freshmen all year long, for our team to be great, all three of them need to be playing well. Tonight happened to be T.J.’s opportunity, and he was very good.”
Lewis’ emergence may rank as the most notable development of the season for the Wolfpack. Before the Brown injury, he often looked lost on the court, completely out of his element. Since being forced into significant minutes with Brown out, he looks like a different player, confident and in control.
He may just be the kind of point guard who struggles when asked to come along for the ride but thrives when handed the keys.
“Tyler just does what he does,” Brown said. “He plays his game.”
N.C. State has now won three straight – one on the final possession, one in overtime and one in a blowout – and may have learned a thing or two about itself in the process.
N.C. State will turn to Purvis again at some point, and while he’s capable of a big game like this one, Warren has been shut out three times in ACC play, so this situation may be fluid.
Still, N.C. State appears to be moving in the right direction, which for a team that got better down the stretch a year ago is the only reaction that matters.