As a sophomore, TJ Warren led the ACC in scoring, brought home ACC player of the year honors, and carried his team to the NCAA tournament–only to blow a huge second half lead and bounce out to Saint Louis. Only looking at Warren’s box scores, and actually viewing his games are a very different experience. Sometimes, high-volume scorers can have a great night without anyone realizing until the game is over. Take Kevin Durant for example. He’ll often hit some 3’s, get some easy transition buckets, score off some post-ups, and all of a sudden he’ll have 30 points when it feels like 20. He does his work quietly and his box score will creep up on you. Warren is not like that. In college, when Warren scored 25+ points, it was clear to anyone watching, that he was dominating the game. That he was N.C. State’s only viable scoring option. Warren’s game is unusual in today’s 3-centric game. Today, nearly all of the great scorers, even those who play down low, are able to consistently hit 3’s. You’ll be hard pressed to find a guard who scores 20+ points per game, who doesn’t shoot and make a lot of 3’s. That’s where things get confusing for TJ Warren.
Warren’s game is described by many experts as having an old school game. What they mean is that he doesn’t shoot 3’s, but he dominates the mid-range, cuts off the ball well, is tough in the paint, and scores off contact. In other words, he’s a bad shooter, who’s tough and has good basketball sense and makes his living in the paint. It’s not quite a backhanded compliment, yet it still isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for Warren either. It’s difficult to comprehend how Warren can score so easily and efficiently with his ugly jumper, which by the way has some very serious mechanical flaws. Yet he puts the ball through the net. And that’s all that really matters. The question is: how effective can such an unconventional player be? It’s not that unconventional players don’t succeed in the NBA, but after the Finals just featured the two teams who build their offenses around hitting 3’s, you have to consider where Warren would have fit on that floor. Warren’s game has pieces of many current NBA players. He moves off the ball a little bit like Rip Hamilton. Warren didn’t come off screens as much as Hamilton did in Detroit, but Warren still shows an ability to move off the ball. That is often the most lacking skill in college players who are primarily scorers: they don’t know what to do when the ball isn’t in their hands. They’re so used to having or touching the ball every play down, that when they get to the NBA and that doesn’t happen, they just stand around. Such a scenario is unlikely to happen with Warren. He has good basketball IQ and that’s a major plus. Mark Titus is right when he says that Warren often finds himself in the right place at the right time, and that is a compliment more than anything. Warren also might have a bit of Paul Pierce in him. Warren will never be close to the player that Pierce is or was, but in terms of their bodies and know-how in the mid-range, they are similar.
Warren would probably thrive most as a sixth man scorer off the bench. He would be adept at doing the scoring for an NBA team’s second unit. He could start, but a coach would have to improve Warren’s shot selection. He can get sloppy sometimes and heist bad shots, but it’s unclear if he only did that because he was so much better than any of his teammates at N.C. State. With better players around him, Warren might not show that level of selfishness. Experts always say you need one elite skill to really make it in the NBA. That skill can be scoring, passing, rebounding, dirty work, 3-point shooting, shut down defense, etc. Warren’s skill is scoring and that is usually the hardest elite skill to translate to the NBA. Only some of the best players in the league score at an elite level. Warren will probably be drafted somewhere in the teens, and would be much better off playing on a winning team that might eradicate his bad shooting tendencies.