TJ Intro

Sophomore forward T.J. Warren walks onto the court during player introductions before N.C. State’s game against Pittsburgh in PNC Arena Jan. 4. Warren was voted the 2013-2014 ACC Player of the Year by ACC coaches and media after averaging 24.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game for the Wolfpack.

According to the NCAA, fewer than 2% of Division I athletes use their athletic talents to make it to the professional ranks. But while a good education, playing time and a winning tradition are more important factors to choosing a school than having a possibility of going pro, some hold out hope that there’s a chance their abilities can earn them paychecks in the future, and maybe certain colleges are better springboards into professional athletic careers than others. In cases like these, athletes may find it helpful to look at the pro counterparts their collegiate suitors have produced and use it to distinguish between the schools that are close in every other criterion. 

NC State men’s basketball has a lot going for it: Not only does the program boast two national championships, but it plays in an intimidating arena in the heart of a vibrant city and athletes who pursue STEM-related majors receive a world-class education, and the liberal arts majors aren’t far behind either. However, when it comes to high-end professional talent, NC State hasn’t produced a bona fide star the school can be proud of since David Thompson. Past history in sending players to the NBA shouldn’t matter too much when high school basketball players are choosing where to go; however, the factors that make NC State a great place to play also make other blue-blood schools excellent places to further one’s education. 

After all, NC State is hardly the only college located in a large city, with rigorous academics or with past success. And so the question highly-touted basketball players ask themselves, at least when it’s hard to pick from a laundry list of colleges, is really quite simple: Would they rather play for the school that a four-time NBA All-Star in the 1970s went to, or the one that Michael Jordan played for?

But that could be changing soon.

The current NBA season was halted in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and after several months of making preparations, the NBA finally returned to play in Orlando within a protective bubble. After not playing basketball for an extended period of time, it makes sense to see players starting off slow out of the gates, but in at least one instance, there have been players who’ve played far above their normal capabilities, perhaps none more than the Wolfpack’s own TJ Warren, currently plying his trade for the Indiana Pacers. 

Warren was already in the midst of his most productive campaign in his NBA career, scoring 19.9 points per game and shooting 54% from the field, including over 40% from three. But since his return to the court, Warren has elevated his game to new heights, scoring 34.8 points per game and shooting 61% from the field as of Aug. 9, with an ungodly 56% from three to boot. 

Since his days in college, scoring the basketball was Warren’s best trait, and his offensive potential prompted the Phoenix Suns to select him with the 14th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. But after entering the league, Warren had a tough time developing into the crafty scorer he was projected to be, with the Suns deciding his versatility inside the arc wasn’t worth his glaring lack of a 3-point shot. On June 20th of last year, Phoenix dumped their failed project in Indiana in exchange for cash considerations. 

As soon as the trade was announced, it was evident the Suns got burned. In 43 games in the 2018-19 season, Warren was already showing Phoenix signs he might be turning a corner, scoring 18 points per game and shooting 49% from the field, but most importantly, he upped his 3-point percentage to 43%. Warren proved that season wasn’t a fluke after joining the Pacers, but if there were any lingering doubts as to whether Warren had arrived on the big stage, they were dashed when he hung 53 points on the Philadelphia 76ers. 

Maybe he isn’t as soft as his adversary Jimmy Butler says he is. Or maybe Warren just forgot Butler wasn’t on the Sixers anymore.

But just for good measure, Warren followed his 50-point outing with 34 points against the Wizards, 32 points against the Magic and 39 points on the L.A. Lakers, led by Lebron James and Anthony Davis. Those performances made TJ Warren the player on everyone’s lips right now, and after a string of games like that, it’s easy to see why Warren’s recent play is likely the new normal instead of a one-off. 

While Kevin Keatts has done a good job recruiting players to NC State, his early tenure in Raleigh will inevitably be marked by his recruiting of “none-and-dones,” prep players who commit to a college and then declare for the NBA Draft when it seems their dream of making it to the pros is attainable. There’s nothing wrong with recruiting players of Jalen Lecque or Josh Hall’s caliber, but when it’s obvious a college player is talented enough to think about playing professionally, a coach’s best pitch to get them to stay is that staying in school would increase their chances of making it to the pros. Unfortunately for Keatts and NC State, the school didn’t have a track record of producing noteworthy basketball players for the NBA. But if Warren can produce the way he is right now for several seasons, it’s not hard to imagine blue-chip prospects being inspired by TJ, doing research on his path to the NBA, seeing their idol playing for NC State and then allowing a dream to take hold in their heart to one day play basketball in front of 20,000 raucous fans a night in Raleigh.

Is he Michael Jordan? Warren might be the MJ of the Orlando bubble so far, but he certainly doesn’t have the resume in the pros that drives players across the country to State’s doors just yet. But if he continues his brilliance, then maybe he doesn’t have to be the next Jordan to do that. Instead, being the first TJ Warren just might be good enough.