College Sports

As AJ Lawson’s NBA buzz grows, here’s what Frank Martin expects from the USC guard

A.J. Lawson first gained NBA Draft buzz a month into his South Carolina career.

The 6-foot-7 guard from Canada was leading the Gamecocks in points (14.3 per game) and assists (3.7) on Dec. 5, 2018, when he popped up at No. 49 on The Athletic’s ranking of top 100 prospects. On May 28, after declaring for the draft and experiencing the process, Lawson chose to return for his sophomore season at USC.

Nothing is guaranteed going forward, but it’s likely Lawson is preparing for the NBA Summer League at this point next year. Early 2020 mock drafts have Lawson pegged as a late first rounder. Both Yahoo and ESPN project Lawson as the 27th selection of the 60-pick event. If that comes true, he’d be the second-highest Gamecock drafted since Hall of Famer Alex English went 23rd overall in 1976.

In the meantime, Lawson will be the centerpiece to a team Frank Martin called last week “the most talented I’ve been a part of” over his seven-plus years as Carolina coach. Expectations are high. Does that force Martin to adjust how he coaches his best player?

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“At the end of the day, it’s all about our relationship, our daily approach, South Carolina basketball,” Martin said last Friday on 107.5 The Game. “The fact that (Lawson) came here and that’s what it was about is why he’s on the board for some people going into next year. We can’t change our approach, we can’t change our mindset, we can’t change our communication. We just gotta keep building on it because that’s what’s opened up that door for possibilities for him in the future.”

The Gamecocks in 2018-19 finished in fourth place in the SEC. There was no postseason beyond an early league tournament exit, however, because of a slow start to the year that coincided with Chris Silva’s underwhelming play.

An All-SEC first teamer as a junior, Silva tested the NBA before returning to USC. He struggled early — see five single-digit scoring efforts over USC’s first seven games — as the Gamecocks limped into SEC season at 5-7. Both Silva — for applying to much pressure on himself — and Martin — for pushing too hard — took blame.

When issues were resolved, Silva snapped back to his normal self and again landed on the SEC’s first team.

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Lawson, who’s representing Team Canada this summer in the U19 FIBA World Cup, is the only Gamecock on the 2019-20 roster coming off a spring dip in NBA waters. He’s heard from professional organizations. He knows what they might like and not like about his game. How will that impact his second year in garnet and black?

Martin doesn’t anticipate any drastic differences.

“With Chris, the information was different (than Lawson),” Martin said. “The information (from the NBA) was ‘Hey, you’re not good enough. You got to go back and work and see where we’re at.’

“With A.J, it wasn’t ‘You’re not good enough.’ It was like, ‘You are good enough. You just need to do it next year, not this year. You keep another year with Frank. You need another year in that system.’”

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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