A.J. Lawson talks ‘weight’ of being South Carolina’s star freshman, NBA speculation
Chuck Martin played tour guide, unlocking doors, flicking on lights and providing background at every turn. He took them to the offices and showed off the Final Four trophy. He took them to the weight room. When he opened the practice facility, his visitors thought they were in the arena. When he opened the arena, his visitors heard about those who played in it and whose jerseys hang in the rafters.
“We talked about the history,” Martin said, “and Sindarius and P.J. and Alex English and all the stuff, B.J. McKie.”
It was October 2017 and Martin, a few months on the job as a South Carolina assistant basketball coach, was hosting a most unusual recruiting trip. Instead of one prospect, he was was tasked with courting an entire team. Oh, and it was around midnight.
David Cooper was driving GTA Prep, a basketball academy out of Canada, from Toronto to a tournament in Orlando when he called Martin.
“Yo!” Martin said, recalling Cooper’s greeting. “Are you up? I think we’re like 45 minutes outside Columbia.”
The shout wasn’t out of the blue. Cooper and Martin had developed a relationship from Martin’s previous scouting ventures to the north. GTA’s Orlando event and the potential for a pit-stop at USC charged one of their recent conversations.
“But he didn’t specify when,” Martin said. “So I’m thinking, ‘All right, great. December, January, whenever.’”
How about two days later? It was 11:15 p.m. when Martin climbed out of bed and told his wife he was headed to the office. Hey, he thought to himself, whatever’s necessary.
GTA had a talented roster featuring 6-foot-10 center Kaosi Ezeagu, a Gamecocks target. But Martin, who spent time recruiting Toronto while on Indiana’s staff, was also aware Cooper had with him a wiry 6-foot-6 guard in the 2019 class.
Martin met them all outside the Carolina Coliseum at 11:40.
“He walked us – the whole team – around the facility, showed us the school, the campus,” Cooper said. “He was so warm and welcoming with all the kids. We toured the facility and took pictures.”
Before boarding the bus and continuing south, they posed for a team shot at midcourt of the Coliseum. There, right in the middle of the block C, was the only player in a crouched position with a ball in his hands.
“It’s almost like he was super comfortable here at South Carolina,” Martin said. “Any other kid had the opportunity to grab the ball and be the centerpiece, but A.J. Lawson grabbed the ball and everybody surrounded him.
“I’ve never forgotten that. In that moment, I’m watching him and I’m saying, ‘That kid is comfortable right here.’”
Little did he know the fit had been brewing for decades.
Chuck Martin has long established an appreciation for Canadian basketball. Born in Puerto Rico, but raised in New York City, he’s grown familiar with the hour flight from his adopted hometown to Toronto in search of talent.
Martin was on Indiana’s staff from 2014-17. He recruited Canada each of those years, working on the country’s top prospects in the 2014 class (Dillon Brooks), ‘15 class (Jamal Murray) and ‘16 class (Thon Maker).
“I had always come close but, for whatever reason, had not been able to land a good Canadian,” he said. “But I knew if I kept investing time and effort up there, eventually, I would land a guy. I knew the landscape, I knew the people, I knew the coaches.”
Hired by South Carolina in June 2017, Martin gave his new boss a couple names to keep tabs on. Frank Martin, who landed Duane Notice four years earlier, was soon back in Toronto to scout Ezeagu and Lawson.
“I went up there and saw them play at an event,” Frank Martin said. “I saw A.J., but we thought he was young. We thought he still had a year of high school left. ... So we started recruiting, but not as engaged as we needed to.”
At the conclusion of last season, the Gamecocks had signed just one prospect to their 2018 class. Their roster by the end of May still had room for three scholarship players. (Ezeagu committed to Texas El-Paso.)
GTA Prep’s impromptu Columbia visit — and the symbolic image it produced — only heightened Chuck Martin’s pursuit of Lawson. Spring conversations with Anthony Lawson, A.J.’s father, led to two important discoveries.
A.J. was considering reclassification — and his dad grew up a Gamecock fan.
“There’s the hook,” Martin thought. “There’s the thing that’s gonna separate us from all the other schools recruiting him.”
Anthony Lawson was born in Baltimore, but spent most of his younger years with his brother and grandparents in Summerton, some 75 miles southeast of Columbia. He attended Scott’s Branch High School and played football for the Eagles.
“My grandfather, his name is Moses Lawson,” Anthony Lawson said, “he’s like a legend in Summerton. He worked at Scott’s Branch for maybe 30 some years. Custodian there.”
The deep South Carolina roots include a stint in the early 1980s when Anthony and his brother, Jerome, were stationed at Shaw Air Force Base. In the ‘70s, the two would watch on black-and-white television Frank McGuire lead the local basketball team.
“That’s all we knew,” Anthony Lawson said. “We didn’t have cable. All that was on TV for a game was South Carolina. John Roche, Mike Dunleavy and those guys, that’s all we knew.”
At a time when in-state high school talent was routinely going outside SC for college, the Gamecocks had a unique opportunity. A.J. Lawson was a foreign recruit, sure, but he had a close tie to the area.
Chuck Martin kept digging.
“At that point,” Martin said, “you’re like, ‘OK, do you have other family that still lives here?’ Because if you grew up here and you’re no longer here, that’s awesome, but there’s no real connection here anymore. You’ve been gone for 20-30 years.
“But then another moment. The dad says, ‘Yeah, my brother lives there.’ ‘He does?’ ‘Yeah, he never left.’ ‘I was the one that left. My brother still lives there. He lives about an hour outside Columbia, South Carolina, with his wife.’
“And it hit me real hard. ‘OK, we might have a chance.’”
When he hosted A.J. Lawson for an official visit to USC in May, Martin learned his role as a tour guide had been diminished.
“We picked him up and started to talk about the university and the surrounding areas,” Martin said. “And honestly, the dad knew it better than I did. And I knew right there, like, this is for real. Like, this guy grew up here. And he would tell me, ‘If you take a right, you’ll end up on Assembly Street. Yeah, I remember Assembly Street.’ Like, he knew the area. It was the weirdest thing.
“And there was an excitement to him. He’s reminiscing. He’s looking and saying, ‘Wow, I grew up in this area, Frank McGuire, Alex English.’ You can tell that he’s like, ‘Man, this is a cool place.’”
A.J. Lawson reclassified to 2018 on May 27. He committed to South Carolina over Tulane — coached by Mike Dunleavy — and Creighton a month later.
Cue random numbers popping up on Anthony’s phone.
“I have high school friends calling me that I haven’t heard from since I left high school 40 years ago,” the elder Lawson told The State in June. “And they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m hearing your son’s coming here. Your son’s coming to South Carolina!’
“It’s just kind of amazing. I don’t even know where they got my number from, but at the same time it’s good to hear from them.”
The SC part made for a nice story, but the other side to Lawson’s decision was an established trust in the Gamecock coaches.
“At first, (the narrative) was A.J. was going to South Carolina because I’m from South Carolina,” Lawson said. “No, I was looking for the best situation for him. And Frank and Chuck really got me comfortable about and excited about having him.”
That’s a stance A.J. confirms.
“When South Carolina offered me, he was excited because he was just thinking about back home and how I can see my roots,” the younger Lawson said of his father. “When I took my visit here, he loved it here. He loved our coaching staff, I loved the coaching staff, I loved the facility.
“Everything was great.”
Entering Saturday’s game at Mississippi State, A.J. Lawson is on pace to break Sindarius Thornwell’s record for the highest-scoring Gamecock freshman of the Frank Martin era. He’s helped USC (14-12, 9-4 SEC) rise from a disappointing November and December to a team with March aspirations.
Lawson’s emphatic put-back slam in the Ole Miss win Tuesday made it to No. 2 on SportsCenter’s “Top Plays.” The nature of it — Lawson soaring between two bigger defenders — was especially sweet for Chuck Martin. His research of Lawson taught him to look beyond the skinny frame and spot a kid who watched his father go work construction every morning in the cold Toronto air.
“If that’s what you see every day and that’s the household that you live in,” Martin said, “the exterior has little to do with your mindset. And I knew that he had a grit to him.”
Chuck Martin tried for years to sign a player of this caliber, that mix of talent and toughness that he knew existed in Canada. He changed schools, but his contacts remained. The call from Cooper, the midnight visit, that got Martin closer. The building of a bond, the acquired knowledge of a Gamecock connection, that sealed the deal.
“Recruiting is not sending letters out, in my opinion,” Martin said. “Recruiting isn’t emailing people. Recruiting is relationships. And in my mind, we got A.J. five years ago when I invested time.
“We just happen to reap the rewards today.”
Who: South Carolina at Mississippi State
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Mississippi
TV: SEC Network