One on One with Chris Dortch: Chris Warren
At the Southeastern Conference basketball media day last October, Ole Miss guard Chris Warren was asked to name the toughest on-ball defenders he had faced in the league.
Warren thought for a few seconds. Then he smiled. Then he thought for a few more seconds.
“I can’t really think of any right now,” Warren said. “Maybe if I thought about it for a while, or went back and watched some tape, I could come up with some.”
In Warren’s defense, it’s obvious why he couldn’t jump on that seemingly hanging curve of a question and hit it out of the park. No one in the league can check him.
Warren is the epitome of the scoring point, a term that’s slowly becoming extinct from the basketball lexicon because it implies that a coach might actually want a point guard who was only a set-up man and couldn’t shoot a lick. In a league like the SEC, with all its accomplished, defensive-minded coaches and athletes who can close out on jump shooters and wrap up penetrators, it doesn’t pay to go four against five, meaning everybody on the floor, including the lead guard, needs to be able to score.
Chris Warren has no problem with that.
Despite missing most of his sophomore season after blowing out his knee, Warren, a 5-foot-10 senior, is closing in on 2,000 career points. What makes Warren unique is that he’s gotten those points in a variety of ways. He’s a deadly three-point shooter with a knack for making big shots.
Few guards Warren faces are quicker, meaning he’s a constant threat to get to the rim. And if he’s fouled on the way, go ahead and chalk up two points. This season he’s shooting 94 percent from the free-throw line.
Other point guards of similar skill set and stature rely on their quickness as the table setter to their offensive game. Not so with Warren.
“His greatest strength is the ability to knock down shots, and he can shoot it deep,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “If you’re defending him, you really have to get up in his face so he can’t get a shot off, but when you do that, you give him driving angles to get into the lane.”
Which takes us back to Warren not being able to think of an on-ball defender that had any sort of success against him. But he can remember the junk defenses opposing teams have utilized.
“There have been plenty of times where people will double on first passes, or try to run a man at me,” Warren said. “I’ve learned to keep my poise and see wherever that man’s coming from, or try to beat the trap that’s coming.
“If people come up and pressure me, that gives me an angle. And when I get into the lane, there’s always a big man that I can dump it off to.”
Warren is a scoring point who hasn’t forgotten about his first responsibility. He’s going to finish his career with more than 400 assists, and if he reaches that milestone along with the 2,000-point barrier—which he can do by maintaining his current 18.5 points-per game average the rest of the season—he’ll be in fast company. Only four other players in SEC history—LSU great Pete Maravich, Tennessee’s Allan Houston and Georgia’s Litterial Green—have done the same thing.
Heading into conference games, Warren is third in the SEC in assists (4.3 apg). He also ranks high in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.9:1, sixth) and free-throw percentage, (.941, first), two other statistics that are barometers of a point guard’s success.
“It’s who he is,” Kennedy said of Warren’s ability to handle scoring and facilitating. “He’s a guy I call a creator. He creates action. We try to play to his strengths. We put him in a position to create action. Sometimes that action is for himself, sometimes it’s for his teammates.
“Chris has a pretty good balance, and that wasn’t something we had to teach him. It’s who he is. It’s who we recruited him to be.”
Warren learned the game and the value of hard work at home, playing pickup games with his father. The games were predictably one-sided until Warren reached a certain age and started winning more than his share.
“We used to be up all night, and we’d play a whole bunch of one-on-one games,” Warren said. “Best out of five. Those games would last forever. And I hated losing. I still hate losing.”
Just ask Warren’s teammates. Whether the venue is a dorm room, a bowling alley or a pool hall, Warren wins—a lot.
“We’ll play video games, and the guys will beat me at Madden [football], but any other game, I win,” Warren said. “If we go bowling, I win. Pool, I win.
“I’m a fast learner. If I see you doing something and you’ve gotten successful at it, I’m going to try and do it your way and I’m going to end up winning.”
Given Warren’s competitive nature, if anyone thought it eats at him that the Rebels haven’t played in the NCAA Tournament during his career, they would be correct. Ole Miss has twice played its way to Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinals in Warren’s tenure, but the closest he’s gotten to March Madness is a video game. He can’t even bear to watch the games on television.
“That’s my main concern,” said Warren, who is on the watch list for the Bob Cousy Award [given to the nation’s top point guard], the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award [the country’s top player six feet or shorter] and the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award. “I want to be in the NCAA Tournament. I’ve had a few accomplishments, but I don’t have that stamp to go with them. I want to make it to the NCAAs.”
This season, the Rebels may have the personnel to stamp that Big Dance ticket for Warren. Kennedy says it couldn’t happen to a better person.
“He’s been a joy to coach,” Kennedy said. “He’s the best I’ve ever had at consistently bringing the right approach. There has not been one day in his Ole Miss career—not one practice, offseason conditioning or games—where we’ve said, ‘you know, Chris just didn’t bring it tonight.’
“He’s just a worker, which is a direct reflection of his upbringing. His parents are salt of the earth, blue collar. Chris tore his ACL as a sophomore, and he’s never complained or used that as an excuse. It’s as if it never happened.
“If they were all like Chris Warren, I may still have some hair left.”