USC Men's Basketball

Inside AJ Lawson’s decision to return, its impact and his future as a Gamecock

South Carolina’s AJ Lawson talks NBA Draft, fashion

South Carolina freshman guard AJ Lawson spoke about his future during the Gamecock Gala event April 15, 2019.
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South Carolina freshman guard AJ Lawson spoke about his future during the Gamecock Gala event April 15, 2019.

Frank Martin had the scoop on A.J. Lawson on Monday night.

The South Carolina coach took a call from his star guard. The conversation led to what became known publicly early Tuesday evening: Lawson is returning to the Gamecocks.

“What’s it mean? It’s awesome,” Martin told The State’s Josh Kendall at SEC meetings in Destin, Florida. “Because he’s a real good player, but he’s a better kid. And he’s respected by his teammates, respected by the coaches. He’s an established player, so it gives us credibility from a national scene.”

According to a list tallied by Stadium’s Jeff Goodman, Lawson was one of 175 underclassmen to test the NBA draft waters. The rising sophomore is one of 89 to announce he’s returning to school before Wednesday night’s deadline.

Goodman on Thursday released his 10 winners and losers from the deadline. South Carolina isn’t on either list, but the SEC’s LSU (four of six early entries are back) and Kentucky (E.J. Montgomery and Nick Richards are back) are “winners” and Auburn (lost Jared Harper and Chuma Okeke), Tennessee (lost Grant Williams and Jordan Bone) and Georgia (lost Nicolas Claxton) are considered “losers.”

Using last year’s numbers alone, Lawson (13.4 points per game) is the sixth-leading scorer among those SEC players returning for 2019-20.

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“Our fans get to continue to understand him as a kid and grow with him,” Martin said, “which is what we lose in the one-and-done era with kids that come and leave right away. The fans want to know who your better players are, they want to get to know them. This gives fans a chance to continue to be around him.”

Lawson is a Canadian who won’t turn 19 until July. He committed to USC on June 26 of last year. Nine months later, he because the first Gamecock since Sindarius Thornwell to be named to the SEC’s all-freshman team.

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“He’s got a fire that burns inside to be great,” Martin said. “And he’s a great teammate. It’s not about himself. He wants to win, he wants to be around his teammates, he wants to help people.”

Martin said he fielded calls from 10 NBA teams to schedule workouts with Lawson. A projected first round pick in 2020, Lawson was told another year of polishing at the college level will help his pro stock.

“No one’s going to guarantee that he’s gonna be a first round pick next year,” Martin said, “but I think the conversations were pretty honest in the sense that, ‘You make another jump in the right direction … and because of where you play and who you play for, you’ll be ready a year from now.’ ”

Does Martin expect next season to be Lawson’s last as a Gamecock?

“My job is to make them work hard enough to make sure I work hard enough that every spring they have a hard choice to make,” Martin said. “That means that the NBA calls, so ‘I got an opportunity to fulfill a dream, but I’m having such a great experience I don’t want to leave where I’m at.’

“That’s a hard choice. And that’s my job to put every one of them, including him, in that situation every single year.”

Andrew Ramspacher has been covering college athletics since 2010, serving as The State’s USC men’s basketball beat writer since October 2017. His work has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors, Virginia Press Association and West Virginia Press Association. At a program-listed 5-foot-10, he’s always been destined to write about the game. Not play it.

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