On Dec. 5, less than a week after he scored 25 points and led South Carolina to a win, A.J. Lawson received his first bit of NBA Draft buzz.
Sam Vecenie of The Athletic released that afternoon an “NBA Draft Big Board” with a ranking of 100 players for June’s two-round event. No. 1 was Duke’s Zion Williamson. No. 9 was Murray State’s Ja Morant. No. 49 was Lawson.
Seven games into his college career, USC’s star freshman had developed some one-and-done potential.
“I saw the start, went back and watched the tape,” Vecenie told The State on Wednesday. “I got pretty excited by what I saw. He’s a very, very gifted ball-handler. The jump shot obviously hadn’t come along yet, but the vision stuff seemed like it was translating. He’s got length and he was getting into passing lanes. His defense wasn’t high-level, but he was adjusting to college basketball.
“I liked what I saw.”
Lawson on Wednesday declared for the NBA Draft. He’s not hiring an agent and can return to the Gamecocks for a sophomore season. The 6-foot-6 guard — and reigning All-SEC freshman team honoree — is no longer on Vecenie’s board.
What changed? Vecenie, a self-proclaimed “big fan” of Lawson’s, nodded to a dip in production at the beginning of SEC play. Lawson, from Jan. 5 at Florida through Jan. 29 against Tennessee, averaged 11.6 points per game, but shot under 38 percent from the field, 22 percent from 3-point range and had as many assists (nine) and turnovers.
“I would say it’s fair to say early on in SEC play,” Vecenie said, “he struggled a little bit. He was trying to adjust to the game a little bit. Basically from the Virginia game (Dec. 19), where they struggled against the national champion, to maybe even through January. Looking at his numbers now ... the vision stuff wasn’t really translating to the highest levels. So you take him off. You say, ‘Hey, maybe I jumped the gun on it a little bit.’”
Lawson finished 2018-19 as South Carolina’s leader in assists (2.9 per game), steals (1.1), second in scoring (13.4) and fourth in rebounds (4.3). He shot 41 percent from the field and 36 percent from 3. For one six-game stretch from Feb. 9 (Arkansas) to Feb. 23 (Mississippi State), he made 61.5 percent of his 3s.
Vecenie called Lawson one of the top 35 freshmen in college basketball.
“I’m very interested in A.J. Lawson,” Vecenie said of the Canadian he scouted during a “Basketball Without Borders” showcase in February 2018. “I’ve been a really big fan of his, going back a couple years now, realistically. Just his game and the size. He’s a pseudo lead guard, more of a combo guard. He has ball skill. He’s improving as a shooter, but not quite there yet as a shooter. There’s a lot of talent there.”
Enough to get drafted in a couple months?
“I would take a flier on him in the second round,” Vecenie said, “but I don’t know if every team necessarily feels that way.”
Lawson has until May 29 to decide whether to remain in the draft or return to school. If the latter is chosen, Vecenie said Lawson could be a first round pick in 2020.
“I’m a fan of A.J. Lawson’s game,” Vecenie said. “It’s just that little bit of craft, that little bit of strength on the ball he needs to continue to develop. He’ll get there.”
Lawson is a listed 172-pounder.
“One reason he can genuinely benefit from staying in school is from the strength and conditioning program at South Carolina,” Vecenie said. “Strength and conditioning programs at a school like South Carolina in the SEC, those are gonna be better than the strength and conditioning program in the G League, where is where he’d probably spend the majority of his time next year.”
Add some weight, develop a more consistent jumper and the Lawson narrative likely changes this time next year.
“What you should do is you should set yourself up in the easiest way in which you can have a long-standing, long-lasting (NBA) career,” Vecenie said. “And the best way to do that is by getting a guarantee contract right from the jump in the NBA, being as a first round pick or being as one of the first 10 guys in the second round, something like that.
“In his case, I don’t know if I can guarantee you that he would be selected in a place where he’d get a guarantee contract right from the jump. Having said that, I think if he was to return to South Carolina, was to kill it, be their lead ball handler, be the guy who really dominates the ball, comes in after a summer where he just dominates and really improves his game, yeah, I think there’s real room for growth in his, quote-unquote, draft stock. “