NC State key returnee: T.J. Warren

T.J. Warren enters the 2013-14 season as the player under the most pressure for NC State. Grant Halverson/Getty Images

An unprecedented buzz greeted NC State as it prepared for the 2012-13 campaign. Following a Sweet 16 run the previous season, the Wolfpack returned the most critical pieces of that rally.

C.J. Leslie decided to take his talents back to NC State. Lorenzo Brown looked the part of an All-American point guard. Richard Howell would anchor the paint. And McDonald’s All-American Rodney Purvis would help, too.

That was the mindset of voters who pegged NC State as the favorite to win the ACC last season.

That didn’t happen.

The Wolfpack finished 11-7 in conference play, good for fourth place. Mark Gottfried’s squad lost to Temple in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

And then, things really fell apart.

Leslie turned pro. Purvis transferred to Connecticut.

In all, Gottfried lost five of his top six scorers.

But the silver lining within the tumult was the return of 6-foot-8 forward T.J. Warren. The former McDonald’s All-American toyed with the idea of playing in the NBA but ultimately decided to return.

He’s the only returning player who averaged double figures in scoring last year.

Last season, Warren was just a young reserve who boosted the talent pool of a team that appeared to have it all.

He’ll enter 2013-14 as the leader of a youthful program facing a sharp turn in projections compared to a year ago.

Warren, a member of the ACC’s all-freshman team (media and coaches), could be the most experienced player in a starting lineup that will be forced to rely on the nation’s 14th-ranked incoming class per RecruitingNation.

Anthony Barber, BeeJay Anya and Kyle Washington are all top-100 kids who will probably start for NC State next season. They’ll look to Warren, a second-year man, for guidance.

It’s a dramatic and unexpected switch for the sophomore. But he’s equipped for it. On the court.

Warren showcased his abilities in multiple matchups last season. He had 31 points and 13 rebounds in a Feb. 19 win against Florida State. He registered 12 points or more in nine of the team’s final 11 matchups.

He shot 52 percent from the 3-point line and 62 percent from the field.

Warren won’t have to carry this program alone.

Veteran guard and LSU transfer Ralston Turner (12.3 PPG in 2010-11) will certainly help.

But this is Warren’s team. The Wolfpack will go as far he takes it.

He’s a durable inside-outside threat that any program would covet. He and his young teammates, however, will enter a gauntlet soon.

The ACC could be the toughest league in America next season. Pitt, Notre Dame and Syracuse will elevate the conference’s profile. But their arrivals also will make life for rebuilding programs such as NC State more challenging.

The grind of ACC play will be a true test for Gottfried’s young crew. And NC State must endure this stretch without much experience.

That’s why Warren’s leadership is just as significant as his production.

An NCAA tournament bid would be considered a surprising success based on the squad’s inexperience.

Warren has to be the anchor. Through everything.

No player in the ACC is facing more pressure right now.