by Neil Morris
As the N.C. State Wolfpack embark on ACC play, the question remains how the Wolfpack can morph from late-season upstarts into the nationally ranked contenders that many foresaw before this campaign. Fourteen games into the season, the roles for the team’s regulars are largely defined: Scott Wood is the sharpshooter; Lorenzo Brown is the playmaking distributor; Richard Howell is the tenacious rebounder; C.J. Leslie, the team’s leading scorer, remains the mercurial straw that stirs the Pack. And freshman T.J. Warren has more than replaced C.J. Williams as a reliable converter around the basket, on the break and occasionally behind the arc.
When all these disparate parts are clicking, N.C. State can be one of the most dynamic teams in the country. But when Wood’s shot isn’t falling, or Brown’s playing olé defense, or Howell’s in foul trouble, or Warren’s getting outmuscled in the paint, or Leslie is being, well, Calvin, this Wolfpack looks rather toothless.
The X factor in this rotational equation remains a ballyhooed freshman, a local whose path to stardom is thus far as circuitous as his journey to PNC Arena. Rodney Purvis was one of the most sought-after recruits coming out of high school, a McDonald’s All-American considered the best prep player in North Carolina and one of highest ranked in the nation. After initially committing to Louisville, Purvis reopened his college selection process before eventually choosing to attend N.C. State and become head coach Mark Gottfried’s highest profile recruit since arriving in Raleigh.
Purvis’ Wolfpack debut was a heady one, a 16-point outing against Miami (Ohio) that he would repeat three games later during his team’s otherwise putrid performance against Oklahoma State. But a poor showing against UNC-Asheville coupled with Warren’s eye-opening early season play saw the freshmen swap lineup spots for the next two key games against Michigan and Connecticut, with Warren getting the starting nod and Purvis coming off the bench. Warren’s own subpar play against UConn led Gottfried to flip their roles once again, and Purvis has started every game since.
The self-assured blue-chipper is one of the most affable and garrulous presences in the N.C. State locker room. Still, much of the nonconference season was spent waiting for Purvis to find his niche on the court. After four straight games scoring under 10 points, Purvis set a new career high last Saturday at Boston College, netting 19 points off 7-10 shooting to lead his team to an ACC-opening road win.
Saturday was the sort of output Purvis will need to build from in order to quell some early season statistical woes. Of those six Wolfpack players averaging more than 25 minutes per game (Purvis ranks fourth in playing time), Purvis is last in points per game, field goal percentage and rebounds. While each of the other five regulars have at least 10 double-digit scoring games, Purvis has notched just six. Only Warren has a lower free throw percentage, and only Wood has fewer steals. Although Purvis is a distant second to Brown in total assists, only Leslie has a worse assist-to-turnover ratio.
Purvis has the enviable ability to create his own shot, whether to uncork a mid-range jumper or slash to the basket for a running floater. His decision-making on the break—the lynchpin to Gottfried’s offensive scheme—has improved. But Purvis’ ultimate fortunes will change only in correlation to his shooting percentage, currently just under 45 percent.
Purvis acknowledged his adjustment period following the Dec. 31 win over UNC-Greensboro when I asked him whether his shot was ready for conference play.
“[Assistant] coach Rob Moxley, he spends a lot of time with me shooting, and we’ll do a partner shooting drill,” Purvis explained. “He deserves a lot of credit for me being ready to shoot the ball. That’s where [my trouble] normally comes from, not being ready to shoot it.”
The fairness of heaping such great expectations on the head of a freshman is a quaint (and perhaps antiquated) notion in college basketball’s one-and-done reality. Nevertheless, the equal reality for N.C. State is that Purvis’ production may prove the difference between winning in December and winning in March … and maybe even April. Until then, here’s hoping his short list gets longer every day.