So far this season, Northwestern has played potential NBA draft picks in Stanford's Dwight Powell, UCLA's Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and Zach LaVine and Missouri's Jordan Clarkson. But North Carolina State's TJ Warren (number 24) may be the best of the bunch.
Ranked as the 27th best NBA prospect by DraftExpress, the six-foot-eight forward is coming off back-to-back 30-point games, bringing his season average up to 22.7 points per game, good enough for 19th in the nation.
Unlike his fellow big man in the six-foot-ten Powell, who does a vast majority of his damage in the half court, Warren poses more of a match up problem for Northwestern in terms of personnel.
While Alex Olah or Nikola Cerina may be able to guard Powell in the post because of their comparable size, Warren is far too quick and athletic for any of Northwestern's interior players. Head coach Chris Collins could use six-foot-five swingman Sanjay Lumpkin to defend Warren. Lumpkin has been Northwestern's "Swiss Army Knife" this season as Collins has called upon him to defend both out on the perimeter and down on the low block. But Warren may be too strong for the wiry Lumpkin.
This season, Northwestern has played man-to-man on 86.9 percent of its defensive possessions. During those possessions, Northwestern's opponents are scoring an average of .877 points per possession, which is a fairly good defensive effort. To put it into context, Synergy ranks that mark in the nation's 63rd percent tile.
But where Northwestern's defense really struggles is in transition. Northwestern is giving up 1.141 points per possession on the break, putting them in the bottom third in the country.
Warren, however, is a force on the fast break. The sophomore ranks in the 93rd percent tile averaging 1.5 points per possession.
The first step to defending Warren is keeping him out of transition. A lot of the responsibility for that falls on the offense not turning the ball over. But Northwestern's defense must stop the ball handler, especially when it's Warren, forcing him to give it up.
Even when defenses force Warren and the Wolfpack to slow down, the versatile player still carries a tremendous offensive load.
The sophomore thrives in isolations, for example, averaging 1.182 points per isolation possession.
During NC State's loss at Cincinnati, Warren was isolated five times. He scored on three of them.
On the first two drives, Warren sets up in the mid post and drives right. Both times, he goes past his defender and finishes at the rim with his right hand. On the third drive from the top of the key, Warren initially drives right then makes a nice behind-the-back move. He still, though, goes back to his right hand to finish the play.
Both of Warren's misses came when he drove with his left hand. The first play ended in an ugly jump shot and the second drive to the left ended in Warren getting blocked.
Northwestern's best shot when defending Warren one-on-one would be to force him left. He is far less effective going left, so Northwestern's team defense would be best served shading him toward his weaker side. Olah also must be prepared to rotate over and help on Warren's drives, using his size to bother Warren at the rim.
The aspect of Warren's offensive game that needs the most work is his jump shooting. Although he shoots just 27.6 percent on jump shots, Warren still attempts jumpers on 34.5 percent of his offensive possessions.
One way for Northwestern to encourage Warren to continue to take jump shots is to employ a zone. Although Collins is a firm believer in aggressive man-to-man defense, Northwestern has played zone on 13.1 percent of its possessions. Despite being slightly less efficient when playing zone this season, Northwestern does force opponents to attempt jump shots on 42.6 percent of all shots.
NC State spots up on 41.3 percent of its offensive possessions against a zone, scoring just .661 points per possession (which ranks in the bottom 15 percent in the country). Along with that, 51.7 percent of NC State's shot attempts are jumpers. They make just 27.9 percent of them. Warren, in particular, shoots just 30.8 percent on all jumps shots against zones and just 30 percent on spot ups.
In an 82-72 overtime loss to North Carolina Central on Nov. 20, Warren scored 13 points as NC Central played zone on 41 of NC State's 53 half court sets.
Warren's 13 points--a low output for him--are a bit misleading. The Wolfpack star only played 28 minutes due to foul trouble. He finished the game 6-10 from the field and settled for only one shot from outside: a contested three.
NC Central's game plan to play a zone against NC State in an attempt to subdue Warren looks good on paper, but Warren's movement without the ball is one of his biggest assets.
Warren has a great feel for the game and can find the soft spots in a zone. Northwestern's defense, then, must know where he is at all times and be physical with Warren as he flashes through the lane.
Warren cuts on almost 30 percent of all possessions against a zone and scores on 54.5 percent of them. Warren's off-ball movement allows him to catch the ball in advantageous situations inside the three-point line. When Northwestern has a chance to force him off his mark, the defense must take advantage by forcing Warren either to his left or to take a jump shot.
Whether Northwestern plays primarily zone, man-to-man or a mixture of both, it will be imperative to keep Warren under wraps. In both of NC State's losses this season, Warren has scored a season-low 13 points. In the team's four wins, the forward scores 27.5 points per game.