Only a few weeks ago, it was possible to make a relatively persuasive case that T.J. Warren wasn’t even a lock to make first-team all-ACC. That had less to do with Warren, N.C. State’s prodigious scoring forward, than it did the quality of the other contenders.
One by one, though, the grind of the conference schedule has worn them down, while Warren has gotten stronger as the season has gotten longer. His 41-point explosion in Monday’s win at Pittsburgh, coming less than a week after he scored 36 in his overtime duel with North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, couldn’t have made that any clearer.
As the regular season wends through its final week, Warren has emerged as the front-runner for ACC player-of-the-year honors. Ballots from members of the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association are due Sunday, but it’s hard to imagine anyone making a stronger argument by then than Warren has already.
Syracuse freshman Tyler Ennis, once the top candidate, has struggled down the stretch. Teammate C.J. Fair, while excellent, hasn’t dominated games the way Warren has. Duke freshman Jabari Parker is probably the league’s most-talented player, and by far its best NBA prospect, but he hasn’t been its best player. Even Paige, who has led the Tar Heels to a 12-game winning streak and won his personal battle with Warren, hasn’t been as consistently good.
A year after Virginia Tech’s Erick Green won player-of-the-year honors on a last-place team, Warren is poised to do it from a team that can finish no better than .500. Last year, Green’s selection had as much to do with a lack of standout candidates on the title contenders as his own stats; this year, Warren’s scoring prowess has made him impossible to overlook against a better field of contenders. He has almost as many 30-point games (eight) as the rest of the ACC combined (11).
While Paige has his supporters, and deservedly so, Parker appears to be Warren’s primary competition. Warren scores more than Parker, who’s a more efficient offensive player and a better rebounder. But Warren is also fourth in the league in steals, while Parker has been a defensive liability at times. And Warren is also shooting 52.8 percent from the floor, an astounding figure for someone who takes as many jump shots and floaters as he does.
It appears to be Warren’s race to lose – or at least it should be after Monday night, when he cemented his position as one of the most dominant, versatile and relentless offensive players in the recent history of the ACC, able to score near the bucket, in the lane and from 3-point range.
Perhaps more interesting is the debate over first-team all-ACC, where there are some tough decisions to be made.
There appears to be a consensus behind the trio of Paige, Parker and Warren. The other two spots are tricky. Ennis’ play has dropped off, but Fair remains Syracuse’s most dangerous player. Virginia won the regular-season title, but without a standout individual player. Joe Harris, a preseason all-ACC pick, has been outshined by Malcolm Brogdon, who missed all of last season with an injury.
At the moment, my ballot would include Fair, Paige, Parker, Warren and versatile Clemson forward K.J. McDaniels on the first team and Brogdon, Ennis, Duke’s Rodney Hood, Pittsburgh forward Lamar Patterson and Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins on the second team.
North Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo and Harris would be the 11th and 12th men in that group at the moment, with the final three third-team spots still up for grabs and all selections subject to change.
Not Warren, though. While his rivals have dropped off, Warren has gotten only better.