For Sooners to reach potential, Warren needs to grow up fast
Willie Warren is facing greater challenges than playing without Blake Griffin
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Few players began this season with higher hopes than Willie Warren, Oklahoma's 6-foot-4 sophomore guard. Following a sensational 2008-09 campaign in which he was the runaway choice for Big 12 Freshman of the Year, Warren was named to a bevy of preseason All-America teams (including mine) and tabbed by The Sporting News as its preseason national player of the year.
A brief glance at Warren's stats so far this season would indicate he has lived up to that promise. He leads the Sooners (and ranks fifth in the Big 12) with a 18.0 points per game, and ranks third in the league with 5.0 assists per game. A closer look, however, reveals a more troubling picture. The latest snapshot came on Saturday, when Warren took six shots, scored four points and committed five turnovers as Oklahoma, which has fallen from a No. 17 preseason ranking out of the AP poll, barely squeaked by Northern Colorado at home, 80-79. After the game, Sooners coach Jeff Capel referred to Warren's desultory performance by saying, "I'm tired of trying to figure him out."
When I reached Capel by telephone on Sunday night, he did not bother hiding the fact that Warren is going through some struggles, and he admitted the situation is putting a strain on the player-coach relationship. "It's my responsibility as a coach to try to help guys mature, try to help them grow up, try to help them become men," Capel said. "Men don't offer excuses. Willie told me he wants to be the best, but being the best is an everyday thing. It doesn't matter who you're playing, it doesn't matter if it's practice. We need him to be our best player, and if he's not acting like it, I'm going to say something because it's not OK."
Warren has played well at times, most notably when he scored 25 in a win over Arizona on Dec. 6 and when he had 27 points, eight rebounds and four assists in a win at Utah on Dec. 12. But he has also delivered clunkers like his eight-point performance (on 0-for-8 three-point shooting) in a 13-point loss at VCU on Nov. 21. That was the first loss in a three-game losing streak, and when the Sooners snapped that skid by beating Nicholls State in the Great Alaska Shootout, Warren did not play because of a coaching decision. At the time, Capel did not explain why he sat his All-America, but he told me Sunday night Warren did not play because he hadn't practiced the day before. Capel would not elaborate on why Warren missed the practice, except to say it did not involve any off-court malfeasance or improper behavior toward his coach.
Capel called the Utah game Warren's best of the season -- not because of how many points he scored, but because of how he dealt with his poor start. Warren was 1-for-10 from the field in the first half, yet he maintained a positive attitude. His shots started falling in the second half, and he hit a game-winning three-pointer from 26 feet in overtime to give OU the lead for good. "The way he was on the bench as far as being a leader, talking in our huddles, that's who we need him to be all the time," Capel said. "If he's going to be thought of as one of the best players in the country, there's a responsibility that comes with that."
Though Warren kept his cool in the Utah contest, Capel said Warren's basic problem remains losing composure when things aren't going his way. "I'd say 90, 95 percent of the time he has been great," Capel said. "When he gets frustrated, his emotions become very obvious and at times it's hard to get him out of that. It really comes down to body language. Our guys look to him and he has to have a confident look all the time. He's a guy that gives our team swagger. Nothing should be able to get him down from that."
Suddenly, though, Warren's facing more challenges than simply learning to play without Blake Griffin, last year's national Player of the Year and No. 1 draft pick. He's splitting point guard duties with freshman Tommy Mason-Griffin, and the adjustment is impacting his game. He's already committed half as many turnovers (40) as all of last season, and he's only recorded 50 assists. His three-point shooting, meanwhile, has plummeted from 37.2 percent last season to 25 percent. And he's going through a rough patch with his coach.
Capel told me he and Griffin butted heads in similar fashion last season, but that the tension never boiled over into the public because Griffin was so dominant. "Blake and I were texting yesterday. He was asking about Willie, and I reminded him that he didn't talk to me for about a month last year," Capel said. "Willie wants to be a leader. He's just trying to learn. I mean, he's 20. He's a sophomore in college. I think sometimes we tend to forget that."
Warren might be a kid, but he is operating in a man's world. If the Sooners are going to reach their potential, young Willie is going to have to grow up pretty fast.
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