Omar Warthen never really planned on playing college basketball. At Furness High, he didn’t sign up for the team until his junior year, and received little attention from recruiters the following season.
Then Neumann College coach Brian Nugent — also a physical-education teacher in the Haverford School District — heard about Warthen through the grapevine.
Four years later, to say the coach is happy with Warthen would be an understatement.
"He is a steal for Division III," Nugent said.
The 6-foot-5, 215-pound senior forward led the nation with a 66.8 shooting percentage last season. He had no idea of his accomplishment while it was happening.
"It was actually a surprise to me," Warthen said. "I didn’t realize it until the end of the year, and I was just shocked. I guess it’s a result of staying close to the basket."
Once a complete unknown, the 21-year-old athlete is now considered one of the top Division III big men in the country.
"I think he is finally getting the respect he deserves," Nugent said. "People have to game-plan for him."
Warthen’s r�sum� of individual honors includes three Pennsylvania Athletic Conference Player of the Week awards and, more recently, the Sam Cozen Small College Player of the Week Award. Through 13 games this season, the center was leading the conference in field-goal percentage (63.9), and was 17th in scoring average (12.2), fourth in rebounding average (8) and 10th in blocks per game (1).
Opposing teams are now focusing their defensive strategies around the man in the middle, better known as "Big Cookie" by his teammates.
"Certain teams try to get the ball out of my hands," Warthen said. "Other people are stepping up and scoring. When they double-team me, it helps my teammates out more."
Guard Rahim Washington is benefiting the most with 16.6 points per game, which rank fourth in the conference. More importantly, Warthen and his teammates opened the week with a 6-1 mark in the conference standings — one game ahead of Alvernia. Neumann was 10-6 overall, including four losses to Division II schools.
The player is getting quite accustomed to winning with the Knights, especially after last season when the team clinched 11 games in a row, and finished a school-best 21-7. The highlight was advancing to its first-ever Pennsylvania Athletic Conference championship game, which Neumann lost to Cabrini, 71-67.
Warthen aided his squad’s cause by connecting on 135 of 202 shots, shattering the Neumann single-season field-goal percentage record of 57.4. Nugent said he helped Warthen develop a finesse game that includes 10-foot jumpers and fade-away shots.
The player’s stats are especially impressive given that he almost skipped basketball entirely.
"I never thought I was good enough to make the team," Warthen said, explaining why he didn’t join the Furness squad until his junior year.
The rookie soon proved himself wrong, averaging 12 points and 10 rebounds a game. That season, the Furness Falcons won the now-defunct Division E title with an 11-1 record. Five years later, it remains one of Warthen’s greatest high-school basketball memories. Furness graduated out of Division E, but failed to make the playoff cut the following season.
At that point, Warthen figured his basketball career was probably over. But after he expressed an interest in Neumann College in Aston, Delaware County, Nugent brought the recruit to campus for a game and, once again, Warthen was reconsidering his options.
After watching from the sidelines his freshman year, the player moved into the Knights’ starting lineup as a sophomore.
"It was a little overwhelming, but I was just happy to be on the court," he said. "Now I am one of the better big men in the league."
These days, instead of doubting his abilities, Warthen is confident he can help Neumann clinch its first PAC tournament championship in March.
"What I learned is you can’t overlook any team," he said. "You’ve just got to play harder and not let up."
Warthen, who is majoring in sports management at Neumann, could leave the court after this year, as Division III athletes generally aren’t NBA material. But the athlete, who still plays pick-up games at 30th and Wharton, isn’t necessarily ready to call it a career. He is seriously considering playing basketball overseas next season, and already has received an invitation to participate in an overseas camp in May, which could lead to something bigger.
With his newfound confidence, the Knights’ quiet leader is ready to take on the competition.
"There are a lot of good players overseas, and it’s not unreachable," he said. "If I try hard enough, I think I can make it."
Nugent shares his optimism.
"I think he is very capable of playing somewhere professionally for a couple of years," the coach said.