When Desmond Lee first visited N.C. State, the question coach Mark Gottfried asked him wasn’t about his scoring ability. That was unquestioned, at least at the junior-college level. No, the question Gottfried had for Lee was about the other end of the court.
With T.J. Warren handling the scoring load for the Wolfpack, could Lee guard the opposition’s best player?
“I know T.J.’s going to score the ball, so I have to find somewhere else to be great,” Lee said. “I took the challenge, guarding the best player. If coach Gottfried asks me to guard him, I guard him.”
As with any team facing as much rebuilding as N.C. State this season, not all of it has gone as expected. While Warren has been the dynamic scorer he was supposed to be going into Saturday’s game against Detroit at Reynolds Coliseum, Lee has emerged not only as the secondary scoring threat but as a defensive workhorse as well. And in part because of that, freshman Cat Barber has moved past sophomore Tyler Lewis at the point.
There are other moving parts. Jordan Vandenberg has been a revelation at both ends of the court after four nondescript years at N.C. State. Among the group of freshman forwards, Kyle Washington was thought to be the most polished before the season, but hard-working Lennard Freeman has played the biggest role so far.
In many ways, it isn’t the rotation Gottfried expected coming into the season.
“That can change, obviously, as younger guys compete and play and different guys develop at different times,” Gottfried said. “For right now, I think it’s the right way for us to play.”
Lee’s ability to step into the backcourt has had the biggest impact on the Wolfpack’s lineup and style. Due in part to Louisiana State transfer Ralston Turner’s tendency to get in early foul trouble, the door was open for Lee to become not only N.C. State’s defensive stopper in the backcourt but the main scoring threat to take the pressure off Warren, the focus of every opposing defense.
A late addition in April after Rodney Purvis transferred to Connecticut last spring, Lee, 6-foot-4, 200, averaged 20.3 points at New Mexico Junior College last season. That kind of scoring ability doesn’t always transfer to the Division I level, at least not immediately, but he’s third on the Wolfpack in scoring with 11.0 points, behind Warren (22.6) and Barber (13.0). Turner, who impressed in practice while redshirting last season, is down the list at 8.5.
“(Lee) could score more, if we needed him to,” Gottfried said. “He’s a patient guy. He’s not forcing the issue. And what he’s become for us is a tremendous defender on the perimeter.”
Meanwhile, Barber’s chemistry with Lee has given him the edge on Lewis at the point, as the two newcomers from the Norfolk area have formed a powerful bond on and off the court. They knew of each other back home, from opposite sides of the Hampton Roads tunnel. At N.C. State, they have become inseparable, and when they go back, they go together.
“You see Cat, you see Des,” Lee said. “That’s how it is around campus.”
For N.C. State right now, that’s how it is on the court as well. It may not be what anyone expected, but that’s how it’s working out for the Wolfpack.