North Carolina State was cascading down the wrong side of the bubble when they flew into Pittsburgh on the first Monday of March.
Five days earlier, the Wolfpack lost an overtime thriller to North Carolina when Marcus Paige hit a driving layup with under one second left to give the Tar Heels the win. Just two days earlier, they were dropped at home by a Miami Hurricanes team that entered the night 5-10 in the ACC. At 17-12 and two games under .500 in the conference, something needed to change, and quickly, if N.C. State was going to make the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season under Mark Gottfried.
That's when T.J. Warren decided to do something about it.
"I knew I've always been able to score," Warren said at the NBA Draft Combine, reminiscing about the moment that changed his final college season. "My teammates were consistently finding me in sweet spots around in the rim, in transition and mid-range. They had a lot of faith in me to put the ball in the basket."
Warren already had 27 points with 12 minutes to play when the N.C. State forward and everyone else in the Petersen Center realized how special this night was going to be.
It started with a three-pointer from NBA range at the top of the key to put the Wolfpack up five. On the next possession, Warren received a cross-court pass from Cat Barber at the right wing and drained another three. A few minutes later, Warren, at the end of the shot clock, bombed a three-pointer from at least 30-feet out and buried it once again.
It was shocking, because just about the only way Warren didn't score this past season was on three-pointers. When the night ended, Warren had 41 points and N.C. State had a huge victory. He followed up the best performance of his career in the next game by dropping 42 points in a win over Boston College.
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(Photo credit: Streeter Lecka)
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The victory at Pitt was the start of a four-game winning streak that put the Wolfpack in the tournament and validated Warren's monster season. He finished third in the country in scoring by averaging 24.9 points per game. He edged out Jabari Parker to become the first N.C. State player to win ACC Player of the Year since Julius Hodge in 2004. He scored 30 or more points nine times, and only failed to score at least 20 in four games out of 36 all season.
Getting buckets is nothing new for T.J. Warren: he's been doing it all his life. What made this past season unique, though, was his role as the team's unquestioned go-to scorer. Even dating back to Warren's high school days, that hasn't typically been the case.
"It was a big difference this year," Warren said. "I realized the situation coming in. C.J [Leslie] and those guys really helped me a lot. Playing against C.J., he's very athletic so I had to learn to adjust my shots around him. Banging down low with Richard Howell helped me. Lorenzo (Brown) feeding me in transition. When those guys left, I understood I had a play a bigger role my sophomore year."
Warren transferred to Brewster Academy in New Hampshire as a high school senior, where he joined a team that started five NBA prospects. Warren was surrounded by Michigan's Mitch McGary, St. John's Jakarr Sampson, Nevada's Deonte Burton and Xavier's Semaj Christon. All five are in the draft this year.
When Warren got to N.C. State, the roster was even more loaded. Leslie, Howell and Brown augmented a talented recruiting class that included Warren, shooting guard Rodney Purvis and point guard Tyler Lewis. It was a stacked team, but the Wolfpack only managed to grab the No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where they lost their first game to Temple.
With Leslie, Howell and Brown all off to play professionally this past season, Warren knew the ball was coming his way. The first change he had to make was to his body.
Warren gained a bit of a reputation as a high school player for being overweight. It was the case as a freshman at N.C. State too, even as Warren shot over 62 percent from the field. To be the top option, Warren knew he had to get serious about fitness. He dropped 20 lbs. in the offseason.
"I needed to be in the best shape of my life," Warren said. "Last summer was a big summer for me in terms of transforming my body. The strength and conditioning I'm doing now has really helped me throughout the process, going back to last summer. Getting down. It really helped my play this past season."
NBA Mock Draft
NBA Mock Draft
Getting in shape allowed Warren to put himself in position to jump the NBA after his sophomore year, where he projects as a first-round pick. It allowed him to take 37.3 percent of N.C. State's shots last season, the third-highest rate in the country.
Fitness was something Warren had to learn. His feel around the basket is something that can't be taught.
The first thing you'll notice about Warren is how devastating his floater is. He can get it off in any situation, from any angle, over any defender. It helped him to shoot 75.9 percent at the rim last season, which trumped the numbers put up by Andrew Wiggins (63.6 percent) and Parker (62.7) by a healthy margin.
Warren said he's never really practiced the shot.
"It's pretty much automatic when I'm around the rim," Warren said. "I get it off pretty quickly. It's tough for taller, athletic defenders to get to it. It's just something natural that I've been able to do. Honestly, I've never worked to develop it. It's kind of unbelievable. It's just comfortable and it's an easy shot for me."
It's a shot that will serve Warren well in the NBA while he grows as an outside shooter. Scouts will question the hitch in Warren's jumper and his ability to defend, but a preternatural touch around the rim will translate to the next level.
Just don't question Warren's ability to fit in around talent. He's been doing it all his life. And as he showed this past season, Warren can be pretty good as an alpha dog, too.