When Columbia was first introduced to A.J. Lawson, Yusuf English was there to track his numbers.
Lawson was a rising freshman at USC when he averaged over 17 points, six rebounds and two assists during the South Carolina Pro-Am in July. English was the court-side statistician that week at Heathwood High School. He saw up-close Lawson’s blend of skill and athleticism and isn’t surprised that it’s transitioned nicely through the first month of Lawson’s Gamecock career.
But English is also the head coach at Hartsville. When he watched Lawson in the summer of 2018, he tried picturing the 6-foot-7 guard in the winter of 2020. That’s when Lawson is likely to be paired with Trae Hannibal in the Carolina backcourt.
“With Trae’s attacking style and Lawson’s ability to score the ball, I think it would give them a whole ‘nother dimension,” English said. “As you can see, Trae tries to find people. He’s got great vision.”
Hannibal, a 2019 South Carolina signee, is off to an impressive start to his senior season at Hartsville. He leads the Red Foxes in scoring (22.5 points per game) and assists (5.2) and is second in rebounding (6.5). On Dec. 4 against Sumter, he had a triple-double. Two nights later, he dropped 28 points in the Bojangles Bash against Our Savior New American, a New York-based program that features Jonathan Kuminga, one of the top players in the 2021 class.
“He looked like he belongs on the next level,” English said after the loss to OSNA. “Against a team like that, his shot didn’t get blocked, He finished in traffic, he went to the line. He tried to find his teammates. He did all that stuff that you would want from a player of that caliber.”
Lawson drew similar reviews in June after a strong showing in the U18 FIBA Americas Championships. He then signed with the Gamecocks, instantly becoming the gem of Frank Martin’s 2018 class.
Through nine games, Lawson leads USC in scoring and assists. A bulk of his production has come while playing point guard, Hannibal’s position. That’s also a spot occupied by T.J. Moss, another rookie.
Martin could enter next season with three point guards, none older than a sophomore. He said that’s by design. Lawson, Moss and senior Tre Campbell give the Gamecocks three options there this year. Martin tried for the multiple PG approach last season, but P.J. Dozier turned pro, Raykm Felder was dismissed from the team and an injured Kory Holden departed in February.
“We recruited to have multiple point guards,” Martin said. “It’s what I believe in. Obviously everything went down the way it did last year and we had to manage it, make the best of it. We tried to do our best, the kids that played it gave that everything they could.
“But we addressed that in recruiting. And moving forward, I like having three point guards on the roster at all times. And I feel good about that going into next year.”
Hannibal, a listed 6-foot-2, 210-pounder, got experience sharing the point guard spotlight last summer on the AAU circuit when he teamed with five-star prospect and Tennessee signee Josiah James.
“Guys like that around me, I love it,” Hannibal said. “Of course I’ll be able to play the point and get on the wing more, I love it. That’s why I said hopefully (Lawson’s) there next year because he’s a great player.
“But I love his motor and his energy, he never gives up, and that’s the type of players I like to play with.”
Lawson is considered a top 50 prospect for June’s NBA Draft, a potential roadblock in a Hannibal pairing. But should the two call Colonial Life Arena home at the same time, English sees big things.
“Trae can get downhill easily and cause traffic,” English said. “That’s going to allow A.J. Lawson a lot more freedom to catch and shoot and create.”
Who: South Carolina vs. No. 4 Virginia
When: 7 p.m. Dec. 19
Where: Colonial Life Arena
TV: SEC Network