The bench can be a basketball player's best teacher, and for North Carolina State's T.J. Warren it taught him everything he needed to know.
A five-star recruit out of Raleigh, the No. 17 player in 2012 picked North Carolina State over Georgetown and was part of the Wolfpack's top-5 recruiting class that included guard Rodney Purvis (No. 12) and Tyler Lewis (No. 48). But instead of entering the starting lineup right away, Warren spent the majority of his freshman season coming off the bench playing behind former five-star recruit C.J. Leslie, who spent time with the New York Knicks in 2013 and is currently in the NBA's D-League. Weight and conditioning was a major issue for the 230-pound, and it left him waiting for his time to shine.
Warren only entered the lineup full-time in the season's final month, averaging 13.9 points on 64 percent shooting.
"Coming in as a freshman I was highly thought of, and I just had to prove my worth and move on up," he said at last month's NBA Combine, "and...I wanted to come off the bench with an impact, understand that the guys around me were great players. Practice was competitive, it really helped me."
Then, the summer between his freshman and sophomore year, after the Wolfpack lost three of their four leading scorers, Warren turned a corner. He got in shape, took a different mentality to his game and, entrenched in the starting lineup, soared to new heights.
What followed was a remarkable sophomore season in which he averaged 24.9 points on 53 percent shooting, was named ACC Player of the Year and a first-team All-American. He led the Wolfpack to 22 wins in a gauntlet of a conference and helped them to the program's third straight NCAA Tournament berth.
"Last summer was a big summer for me transforming my body and (it) really helped my play this past season. Just doing whatever I can to make sure I get even more ripped, more cut up and more fit for the next level," he said. "When those guys left I understood that I’d have to play a bigger role my sophomore year and like I said, transforming my body really helped."
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Of the 17 collegiate players Bulls Insider Aggrey Sam projected in his most recent mock draft being selected before Warren - four were international players - only UCLA freshman guard Zach LaVine, Michigan State senior forward Adreian Payne and Clemson junior K.J. McDaniels started a smaller percentage of games during their collegiate careers. LaVine only started one game on a talented Bruins team, Payne was a three-year starter after coming off the bench as a freshman and McDaniels was a two-year starter as a sophomore and junior.
Those 17 players combined to start more than 85 percent of their games; Warren started just 70 percent (21 of his 70 games came off the bench). His reshaped body - he measured 8 percent body fat at the combine - was a key factor in his phenomenal play as a sophomore, and so was his killer mentality with the ball in his hands.
His 24.9 points per game were third in the country, and his 53 percent shooting from the field was tied with Doug McDermott for the best mark among top 10 scorers in the country; his 9.7 made field goals per game led the nation. He scored 30 or more points in eight games and scored 41 and 42 points in consecutive games; the 41-point effort came at Pittsburgh, a team which allowed the 19th fewest points per game (61.9) in the country.
Warren also attempted 37 percent of the Wolfpack's shots while on the floor, the third highest rate in the country. In that sense he played a lot like Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant, the NBA's MVP and scoring champion this season. And for all the headlines Warren made this past year, the one he seemed most excited about came when Durant gave him a shoutout on Twitter following North Carolina State's NCAA Tournament loss to St. Louis.
Much like Warren, Durant was the country's fourth leading scorer (25.6 ppg) in his only year at Texas but lost to USC in the second round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament. Following the tweet - Warren responded "thanks bro!" - Warren had a further conversation with Durant, and the MVP gave him invaluable advice he said he's using during the draft process.
"He’s telling me to stay in the gym, stay getting better," Warren said of his conversation. "The gym will never do you harm. Just stay with it and good things will come."
Warren's size and scoring prowess has him in the late-lottery conversation, and there's a chance he's available when the Bulls select at No. 16 (or No. 19). And for a team that ranked last in scoring and struggled for points on the wing following Luol Deng's trade, Warren would be a warm welcome in Chicago.
As one of the best pure scorers in the draft, Warren has realized how he can affect games and is taking that mentality with him to the next level. He has experience both coming off the bench and being the go-to scorer, which will serve him well when his name is called later this month inside the Barclay's Center.
"Just to stay aggressive," said Warren, when asked about his mentality as a scorer. "I understand that as a scorer you’re going to miss shots, but you can’t get down on yourself. You’ve got to know that the next shot’s going to go in. You’ve got to keep a positive mentality and stay with it."