His Time Is Now
Willie Warren wanted a shot to lead Oklahoma, now he’s got it.
Willie Warren came to Oklahoma to be the face of a major program. This season, he’ll get his chance.
With the departure of Blake Griffin – the number one overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft – Warren suddenly finds himself as “the Man” in Norman, a role he coveted from the moment he set foot on campus a year ago as a McDonald’s All-American.
“If you’re able to take a major school that already has its name out there and be the face of that program, if you’re successful at that then you’re ready to take that step to the next level,” Warren says. “Blake did that last year by leading us to the Elite Eight and winning National Player of the Year, he showed he’s able to be the face of franchise, win and be a leader. I feel like that’s something I need to prove I’m able to do.”
There are already plenty out there who are confident in the sophomore shooting guard’s ability to do just that. After being the unanimous choice for Big 12 Freshman of the Year in a season that saw him average nearly 15 ppg, Warren’s draft stock was sky high on a lot of mock draft boards, even in a class that was so guard-heavy. Faced with the opportunity to come back and spend a year running the show for the Sooners though was too much for the Texas native to pass up.
With so many players making the jump to the pro game after one year of college experience, Warren surprised even those closest to him when he barely flinched at the idea of leaving school early.
“It’s kind of interesting because I’m the one who initiated the conversation,” Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel says of Warren’s decision to return. “His point was he didn’t feel like he needed to come tell me about it because he never said he was leaving. That’s Willie, he never one time said he was leaving or that he was thinking about leaving.”
Instead, the 6-foot-4 scoring machine spent his summer training like a mad man to handle to rigors of being the focal point of his team’s offense this season. Warren has reportedly dropped 15 pounds and spent a good amount of his time on campus fine tuning every aspect of his already explosive game. The overall feel of this Oklahoma team will be vastly different than it was a year ago given the absence of Blake and brother Taylor, two players who allowed the offense to run through them. In a conference that is loaded with massive frontcourt talent, Capel will be relying on his star sophomore to be a backcourt catalyst on a team that will be deeper on the perimeter.
More than anything though, the fourth-year Sooner coach will be expecting Warren to make a similar psychological jump to the one Griffin made between his freshman and sophomore seasons.
“Really the big thing for him is becoming a better leader,” Capel says. “I think that’s where you saw the biggest jump with Blake, he became more mature. That’s the same thing with Willie. His game is going to take care of itself because he has incredible talent. We never sat down and said here are the numbers that we need from you next year, it was more of learning how to compete every possession, becoming more vocal and becoming a leader. He is a guy that everyone is going to be looking at as one of the best players in the nation and there’s a responsibility that comes with that.”
Blake and Willie. Griffin and Warren. The two names will continuously be linked to one another this year whether the latter wants them to be or not. The similarities are there of course: stellar freshman seasons followed up by passing on the NBA for another year at the college level. Griffin’s story doesn’t need to be recounted, but Warren’s has yet to be written in full and while expectations are high for the current Sooner star, he will have to carry the weight of filling some very large shoes.
Warren insists he doesn’t feel any pressure heading into his second season, citing his years of living in the spotlight as a high school star as preparation for the year at hand. Capel adds that when it comes to bracing for the whirlwind that will come with being dubbed as one of the best players in the country, Warren has a leg up on Griffin.
“One of the advantages that he has is that he saw Blake go through it,” Capel says. “Blake didn’t have a set blue print, but he and I talked a lot. I tried to give him examples from my experiences or from my teammate’s experiences. With Willie, he’s seen it; he saw everything Blake went through. I think that has helped him in his preparation this summer.”
And despite the early contentions last year that Warren would struggle to play second fiddle to another established star, he and Griffin forged a strong relationship that the sophomore can go to as he progresses through his year as the center of attention.
“Blake and I keep in touch as much as we can,” Warren says. “He knows I have a busy schedule because he went through it last year and I know he’s got a busy schedule out in L.A., but we touch base here and there to see how the other is doing.”
“He keeps telling about how this year isn’t going to be much different; the spotlight just gets a little bigger. It’s nothing I can’t handle because I’ve been in the spotlight for a long time now; it’s about staying humble, playing basketball and winning games.”
Winning games is something the Sooners excelled at last year, finishing 30-6 and advancing to the Elite Eight. It was the fifth time in program history the team has achieved 30 wins and for the second consecutive season their win total improved by seven games. Expecting a similar increase, or any increase for the matter, might be asking a lot of a team that will be painfully young and inexperienced this year.
Oklahoma returns just three players who averaged more than 10 minutes per game last season, all of whom played in the backcourt. Warren and senior guard Tony Crocker will be the only real battled tested players taking the floor this season, but a trio of talented freshman in Keith Gallon, Tommy Mason-Griffin and Andrew Fitzgerald will be counted on to be contributors from day one. Gallon and Fitzgerald, a pair of massive forwards, will help to fill the 28 ppg void left by the Griffin brothers inside and Mason-Griffin, an undersized speedster, will see time at the point guard position when Warren is playing off the ball.
Trying to replace the kind of talent the Sooners lost in one season is a tall order – guard Austin Johnson’s departure hasn’t even been mentioned yet – but after working out with the team’s newcomers in the off-season, Warren is confident in his new teammates.
“They don’t play like freshman and they don’t think like freshman, they’re moving along very well in learning the whole process,” Warren says. “We’re a young team and we know we’re going to have our ups and downs, but all of our freshman have played at an elite level, so the talent isn’t in question, it’s whether they can do it night in and night out. When they hit the freshman wall and things aren’t going their way, can they still contribute to the team and not shut down.”
Those hardly sound like the words of a sophomore in college – but maybe that is just an early sign telling us that Warren is ready for the challenges that will come with being the face of his team and one of the faces of college basketball.
He claims the NBA is the farthest thing from his mind right now, though many are already saying he could be a top five pick come next June. That’s what happens when you’re pegged as “the Man”, that talk is going to come whether you want it to or not. Just like starring for Oklahoma this year is going to come with whispers of Blake Griffin whether you want it to or not.
This is what Warren wanted, this is what he craved. Now, he’s ready to take it all in stride.
“It’s my turn to be a vocal leader and lead by example, be the same kind of leader that Blake was,” Warren says. “I expect great things out of myself. I know what I’m capable of and I feel like this is a great opportunity to show the world what I can do.”