USC Men's Basketball

The moments from AJ Lawson’s summer that convinced coaches he’s only getting better

South Carolina coach Frank Martin on June 29 watched his best player score 23 points, grab eight rebounds and record four assists. So when Martin texted A.J. Lawson following Team Canada’s win over Australia in the FIBA U19 World Cup, the message — naturally — was about something Lawson did on defense.

I saw how you dodged those screens.

The Gamecocks’ quest to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years rests somewhat on the shoulders on their 6-foot-6, 178-pound sophomore guard. How Lawson improves from an All-SEC freshman season could take Martin’s team a long way this spring. The good thing for USC is he’s been working on that since last summer.

Martin wasn’t in Greece to see firsthand how Lawson guided his home country to the quarterfinals of a wold competition, but from afar he took note of Lawson’s progress.

The scoring and stat sheet-stuffing wasn’t new. Lawson in 2018-19 was the second Gamecock of the seven-year Martin era to average at least 13.4 points, four rebounds and 2.9 assists (Sindarius Thornwell). The symbol of growth, in Martin’s mind, was when he fought through a couple picks late in Canada’s tournament-opening win over Australia.

“I’m sitting there,” Martin said, “saying, ‘A.J.’s guarding the best player on the other team. This is interesting.’ They tried to screen him on two different occasions and he refused to get screened. I said, ‘That’s a young man who’s gotten better.’

“Because he bought into one of the things we try to sell, which is our defensive mindset. They won the game because a secondary player ended up taking a bad shot and the guy they wanted to go make a play couldn’t get the ball. That showed me a lot about A.J. on the spot.”

Lawson grinned when he was told of Martin’s reaction. He then revealed what Martin sent to his phone. It was a text that put in perspective the strides he’s made since committing to South Carolina as a 17-year-old in June 2018.

“It just made me think, ‘I really did that,’” Lawson said. “I just learned that all through last year and the defensive drills that we did and it helped me through Canada basketball this summer.”

Dan Vanhooren oversaw Lawson’s seven-game, eight-day run as Canada’s star attraction. What Canada’s coach recalls about Lawson’s defensive stop against Australia is that it was just one of several moments that proved his worth as team leader.

“He was THE GUY for us,” Vanhooren told The State. “Whether we needed a big shot made or a big play made or whatever, it was his responsibility. It was on his shoulders. And I think to have that responsibility maybe drives you at times to do what’s necessary to get the job done.”

Lawson was among the oldest players on Canada’s roster. He was the only player with American college experience. He finished by averaging a team-best 16.7 points and 3.4 assists.

Time will tell how the performance translates to his second year at South Carolina, but Vanhooren’s certain the Gamecocks are getting a better player because of it.

“In truth, I think he came with a pretty solid skill package for us,” Vanhooren said. “My opinion would be that he needs to take his experience from the junior national team as a lead player and apply that to South Carolina, where he needs to score buckets and create for other guys.

“Because he was our focal point. Whenever he had the ball in his hands, I was much more relaxed as a coach. That says a lot about his capabilities as a player. I think he’s more prepared now to take on a larger role, whether that’s from a leadership perspective with the program or certainly with scoring the ball and doing some different things on both ends of the floor for the team.”

Chris Silva has departed, leaving South Carolina down its leader and top scorer from last season. The Gamecocks need to replace both and there’s few logical candidates as strong as Lawson.

A big year likely sets up his next move.

Vanhooren, a former employee of the Vancouver Grizzlies, has taken calls from NBA teams about Lawson and his next-level potential. Why is Lawson trending to become USC’s first first round draft pick in 14 years? See his 31-point outburst that pushed Canada past Senegal in the World Cup’s Round of 16.

“Senegal is long,” Vanhooren said. “I’ve never seen a longer team. They’re the longest team on the planet, let’s just put it that way. It’s like playing the Monstars or something. So he goes out there and he’s getting his shot off and he’s getting to the rim and he’s finishing. He gets out in transition well.

“He’s definitely capable against that kind of length. Like, a lot of players that don’t have his abilities to set his feet so quick would have struggled against Senegal. And for him to do that shows he’s got some capability against some longer length, which is really what the NBA guys have.”

For now, though, Lawson’s mission is to conquer the SEC guys. After the league’s media failed to vote him on either preseason team, Lawson’s out for respect.

He’ll fight through every screen to get it.

“You have to grind through everything,” Lawson said.

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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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