Oklahoma guard Willie Warren spent the past year trying to shed the label that he couldn't handle playing with another star player. In the next 12 months, Warren wants someone else to prove they can co-exist while he takes a star turn.
For the second season in a row, Oklahoma will be led by a sophomore who could have declared for the NBA draft after his freshman campaign. Last season, Warren was the touted freshman joining a team built around star sophomore Blake Griffin. This season, Warren will be the star sophomore.
As a five-star prospect out of Fort Worth (Texas) North Crowley, Warren heard the criticism that he was too selfish and not much of a team player, and he would have trouble playing with Griffin, who ended up being the No. 1 pick in last week's NBA draft.
"[Some people] felt I couldn't play with a superstar," Warren said. "They felt I had to have 20-30 shots [a game]. Last year, I proved people wrong."
As a freshman in 2007-08, Griffin was overshadowed by one-and-done freshmen Michael Beasley and Derrick Rose. As a sophomore, Griffin won every major player of the year award. Hoping for similar results out of Warren as a sophomore isn't unreasonable.
"Willie will be one of the better players in our league, if not the best player in our league," Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel said. "I have shared this with him. Because he decided to come back and off what he did last year, he's going to be a marked man."
As a Griffin sidekick, Warren didn't finish in the top 10 in the Big 12 in any major category. Even with all the departures in the conference, Warren is only the ninth-leading returning scorer in the league (14.6 points per game).
Warren was the 10th-ranked player in the Class of 2009, and five players in that top 10 will be in the NBA next season. Warren said he knew early in the process he wouldn't follow them; the challenge to be Oklahoma's go-to guy was too alluring.
"In order to play at the next level, you have to be able to [be] the face of the program," Warren said. "This will be the opportunity to be the face of Oklahoma."
Being the face of the program will require some sweat. Griffin's work ethic earned raves from coaches, teammates and the pros, especially during the offseason. Earning respect the way Griffin did is one of Warren's goals for the offseason.
"He just worked hard all day every day," Warren said. "I've never seen him take a practice off or a workout off. That's something I'm going to try to follow. We respected him as a leader and a player. I have to do the same thing he did."
Oklahoma received a brief look at a Warren-led Sooners team last season. In a Saturday night game at Texas on Feb. 21, Griffin left the game with a concussion after 11 minutes. Warren took over, scoring 27 points in a 73-68 Sooners loss. Warren again was the leader by default in the Sooners' next game, against Kansas two nights later. He scored 23 points against the Jayhawks in an 87-78 loss.
Capel said he's not reading too much into the way Warren and Oklahoma played in that 48-hour period without Griffin.
Since the 1999-2000 season, 12 sophomore have been named consensus All-Americas. Oklahoma guard Willie Warren hopes to follow former teammate Blake Griffin into that group.
F DeJuan Blair, Pittsburgh
F Blake Griffin, Oklahoma
G James Harden, Arizona State
G D.J. Augustin, Texas
F Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina
C Andrew Bogut, Utah
G Chris Paul, Wake Forest
G T.J. Ford, Texas
G Joseph Forte, North Carolina
F Casey Jacobsen, Stanford
G Jason Williams, Duke
F Troy Murphy, Notre Dame
"The game and a half we didn't have Blake, we had no time to prepare for it," Capel said. "We'll have a whole fall to prepare for it [this season]."
Warren said those games aren't a true indicator of how the team will look in 2009-10. Still, it was a chance to see Warren in his element.
Against Texas and Kansas, Warren averaged 25 points and made 18 of 36 shots from the field. In the other 34 games, he averaged 14 points, taking about a bit more than half as many shots from the field per game (he averaged 18 in the games without Griffin, 10.1 in the other 34).
"Those two games I played without Blake, that was just me being Willie," Warren said. "I was able to play my game freely.
"Coach Capel allowed me to do a lot of the things in those two games I usually wouldn't do with Blake on the court. Those were the things that allowed me to be Willie the most."
With Griffin in the lineup, the offense understandably flowed toward the post, and Griffin averaged 27.2 points and 14.4 rebounds. The Sooners' offensive emphasis will likely shift to the backcourt next season.
Griffin isn't the only loss for Oklahoma. Starting forward Taylor Griffin, Blake's brother, is gone, as is starting point guard Austin Johnson. Reserve forward Juan Pattillo, an athletic presence off the bench, was dismissed from the team in May and transferred to Western Kentucky.
Despite the losses, Capel will use a formula similar to the one he used during last season's run to a regional semifinal, where the Sooners (30-6) lost to eventual national champion North Carolina. The Sooners will be led by a sophomore who is expected to be an NBA lottery pick and will have a senior (guard Tony Crocker) and a highly regarded freshman (center Keith Gallon) in the starting lineup; actually, there likely will be two highly touted freshmen, with four-star prospect Tommy Mason-Griffin likely to take over at the point.
But banking on Warren taking a Griffin-like leap isn't a guarantee.
"It didn't just happen to Blake because he came back," Capel said. "I'd be willing to bet he worked harder than anyone in the country after his freshman year. He invested in it. If Willie's willing to do the same thing, he can have similar results because he's very, very talented."
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.