After all, Warren, the son of former Wolfpack player Tony Warren, who had laced ‘em up under Norm Sloan, had just won ACC Player of the Year, the first State player to earn such honors since Julius Hodge in 2004.
As a sophomore, Warren averaged 24.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while logging 35.4 minutes a night, strong numbers under a much heavier workload than he saw as a freshman, when he averaged 12.1 points and 4.2 rebounds while playing substantially fewer minutes and earning a spot on the ACC’s All-Freshman Team.
On the night of the 2014 NBA Draft, things went about how most expected for Warren as he was selected 14th overall by the Phoenix Suns. In his NBA Summer League debut against the Golden State Warriors in Las Vegas, he made a rather strong first impression by scoring 22 points.
But as is the case for many players new to the Association, the Durham native found playing time hard to come by. He finished the season having appeared in 40 games with one start, averaging 6.1 points and 2.1 rebounds per game.
“It’s a big adjustment, learning every day, just gaining confidence game-by-game, just getting more comfortable. Just learning rotations and being ready at all times,” Warren said late in the regular season during a road trip to Dallas. “I’m very comfortable. Each game, I’m just gaining confidence. My teammates do a good job of encouraging me every night I’m out there and just continue to build confidence every time I’m out there.”
And with minutes sparse in Phoenix, the Suns did what most of their Association brethren do, they sent Warren to their affiliate in the NBA Development League (D-League), the Bakersfield Jam. Warren played nine games for the Jam and averaged 26.8 points, seven rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.6 assists per game while playing on average 35.4 minutes a night.
Some rookies might have bristled about being sent to the D-League, but Warren never viewed his time in Cali as anything but a great opportunity to play the game he loves, and something which would allow him to be better prepared to handle the rigors of the NBA upon returning to the Suns.
“I definitely went down there and it actually got me in shape of playing basketball and just staying sharp. It benefited me pretty well. Overall, it was good for me,” he said.
Even though the Suns have a pretty young roster, Warren is still expected to handle his share of rookie duties. But he does consider himself lucky that the pink backpack, a rookie rite of passage around the league and across pro sports for that matter, which rookies are asked to carry everywhere to announce their rookie status to the entire world, isn’t a player in the Suns room.
No, his rookie duties consisted of having to pick up towels after each game and running small errands for his teammates. Warren said it hasn’t been too bad, adding that his new teammates haven’t asked him to do anything terribly outlandish to earn his bones in the league.
He’s now just over a year removed from his time in Raleigh, so it makes sense that his two seasons with the Wolfpack remain quite fresh in his mind. Warren considers it an honor first just to play in the ACC for a program like NC State and of course also be able to follow in his father’s footsteps there.
“Well, yeah going to State definitely helped me a lot. Very familiar with the culture there, the tradition. My dad played there so really it was an easy decision for me to go there. Just going there knowing I could potentially be here (in the NBA) was a blessing for me. I just wanted to continue to work hard and do everything I could,” he said.
On the night Warren was interviewed for this story, he scored 10 points and brought down two rebounds as the Suns lost at Dallas, officially eliminating them from contention for a playoff spot in the ultra-competitive NBA Western Conference.
And even though his team fell short of is ultimate goal of making the postseason, Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek liked what he saw from Warren off the bench against the Mavericks. “Yeah, that’s what T.J. does. He’s able to get in there. I thought he passed up one, which I said T.J. that’s your shot. Go ahead and take it,” Hornacek said. “So he played well and he’s going to learn the other things defensively. He’ll get better at that as the years go on, so he’s got a bright future.”
Naturally, the Phoenix room was a rather somber place for him and his teammates after it became official, but this ex-State star still managed to see the silver lining in missing out on the postseason as an NBA rookie.
“It’s tough but it’s part of the process, being such a young team. We just got to learn from it, move on and continue to learn from mistakes, just bond as a group and get better,” Warren said.
Like many rookies, he has done his best impression of a sponge all season to learn all he can from his experienced teammates, guys who have been in the trenches and know exactly what it takes to not just survive a rigorous 82-game regular season but to also thrive in the Association.
And even though there aren’t many older players on the Phoenix roster, there is still plenty of experience in the room, a resource which Warren intends to continue tapping into even though he’s now no longer officially a rookie with the end of the 2014-15 season.
“Everybody contributes a lot in helping me, giving me advice here and there. They’ve been helping me and building my confidence. That benefits me out there a lot,” he said.
But it hasn’t just been his new teammates who have provided plenty of sage advice to someone who is entirely new to playing in the NBA. Hornacek, a former standout guard for the Suns and several other teams, has also been a great source of information for Warren.
“It’s good learning from a coach that’s played in the league, been there and done that. Passing his knowledge to us helps us a lot,” he said. “Coach Hornacek’s a great coach. Just want to continue to do what he says and continue to listen to him.”
Phoenix still had three regular-season games remaining after being eliminated from the playoffs. Despite his disappointment about missing out on the postseason in his first year, TJ wasn’t about to mope. Instead, he wanted to use those final three games of the season as a springboard to give him some momentum heading into summer league and next season.
“I just want to finish out strong, finish the season with momentum heading into next year, just continue working on the things I need to work on,” Warren said.
In recent years, many rookies have returned to summer league for a second straight year after their debut campaigns are in the books and Warren will join that club. Some might wonder why he might take some time off and just skip playing in the Vegas Summer League?
Well, it’s not like he won’t get some down time before summer league fires up in mid-summer. By then, he figures to be well rested and chomping at the bit to play some competitive games to keep his competitive fires burning as strong as ever. “Yeah, I’m going to definitely play summer league this year. I look at it as playing basketball and having fun in Vegas. It’s a great atmosphere there, just continue to represent the Phoenix Suns,” he said.
And when he’s not playing summer league, what exactly does T.J. Warren plan on working on in this, his first full offseason as an NBA player? Well, the answer to that query is a rather simple one. “Just everything, watch a lot of film from my past season. Just continue to get better on the defensive end and the offensive end. Learn from my mistakes and just come back better and more improved next year,” he said.
Having a year under his belt also means he now knows what to expect from a typical Phoenix summer, one where temperatures can easily reach 110. But Warren has a really easy remedy for the heat in his new locale.
“It’s really hot, pretty brutal. It doesn’t bother me. I’m indoors, luckily,” he said.