Nov. 8, 2010
By Matt Winkeljohn
Gani Lawal was back in the neighborhood over the weekend, enjoying and enduring circumstances that might be described as a mixed bag.
On the day he turned 22, the former Georgia Tech star was in his hometown, which made it easier for his parents to celebrate his birthday. Plus, the Phoenix Suns handed the Atlanta Hawks their first loss of the season Sunday in Philips Arena, which was great news for Lawal’s new team.
His homecoming would have been better had he played in the game rather than watch it from the bench while in a suit. It’s dues-paying time, though, and Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry has not yet played the 6-foot-9 rookie forward in a regular-season game as the Suns have an excess of players somewhat similar in size.
Drafted in the second round by the Suns, Lawal’s path to the NBA was not guaranteed. Yet the Suns thought enough of his Summer League work (he averaged 15.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and a blocked shot per game) to sign him to a three-year contract with his first-year guaranteed. The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement does not mandate that second-round draft choices get a guaranteed first year, but Lawal cemented a salary of $473,000 for this season.
The ensuing preseason, however, was a step up in competition for the former Norcross High standout who left Tech after his junior season.
“You know the guys are going to be bigger, stronger, faster,” he said. “I’m just learning the ins and outs of the game, and learning to stick to what I do. That’s what got me here.”
At Tech, Lawal did the dirty work. He did not take many jump shots, was not a ball handler, nor a passer. But he worked extremely hard on the glass, and to position himself for second-chance points.
That will likely be his role on the Suns should he continue to learn the nuances of the Phoenix offense, but he’s got company.
On a roster with more size than the Suns have had in years, including 7-foot center Robin Lopez, forwards Grant Hill (6-8), Hedo Turkoglu (6-10), Hakim Warrick (6-9), Channing Frye (6-11), Jared Dudley (6-7) and Earl Clark (6-10) and swing men Josh Childress (6-8) and Jason Richardson (6-6), there is a crowd in front of Lawal.
His skill set is not like any that these men possess. His willingness to bang around may eventually earn him a spot in the rotation, but where he was in college often asked to set up with his back to the basket, the Suns rarely roll that way unless Lopez is the one doing it.
In the preseason, Lawal started by scoring seven points with seven rebounds in his first contest.
He added a modest three rebounds over the final five preseason games. Overall, he averaged 4.3 points and 1.7 rebounds with four steals, two blocked shots, two assists and eight turnovers in those six games. Lawal played about 11.5 minutes per game, making 5 of 16 of his shots (31.3 percent), and 16 of 27 free throws (59.3 percent).
Gentry has given him an idea what to work on while idling. “Just my understanding of the game on the offensive side of the ball, learning where to be on the court,” Lawal said. “That’s what I try to do in practice, look at the big men who are playing and see what they’re doing, try to be in the right spot.”
Even Childress, the former Hawk who is new to the Suns this season, can relate in a way to Lawal’s learning curve.
Back in the NBA after spending two lucrative seasons playing in Greece, he’s been averaging a relative modest 12 minutes or so while learning how to fit into the Suns’ unique offense.
“There hasn’t been any frustration from the standpoint of playing time,” Childress said. “There has been frustration on a personal level, just trying to figure out how I can maximize my contributions to the team in the minutes that I get, whatever they are.”
There, spoken like a pro by a pro, is much of what Lawal is experiencing to an even greater degree.
It’s great to get paid to play, but he’d rather actually play. Time will tell. Lawal is learning, too that, “All the stuff you hear is cliché, but it’s true. You’ve got to get your rest, eat well. Maybe in college you can get away with it a little bit, but in the NBA not so much.”