Sept. 21, 2009
by Matt Winkeljohn, Managing Editor
OSR Sting EXTRA
ATLANTA – So many people had it wrong all along. It’s not the third time that’s a charm; at Georgia Tech it’s number nine that’s fine.
Eight times before Gani Lawal entered his name in the NBA draft last spring, a different Tech underclassman did the same thing. Before the senior forward opted against, before he chose a return to The Flats over making his wallet fat, the first eight all went pro.
Not Lawal; he’s got something to prove – that he’s a bona-fide high first-round draft choice, that he’s more than the low first-, high-second round pick NBA officials told him last spring that he’d likely be if he kept his name in the draft hopper.
He wants to show that those NBA officials were wrong. So he withdrew from the draft before the NBA’s deadline — even after jetting around the country to work out for multiple teams, and going through more interviews than CNN’s Larry King in a month.
“I definitely feel I’m talented enough, and have the ability,” Lawal said. “They all said, `You’re a very talented young guy, definitely an NBA prospect. If you stay [in the draft], you’ll probably go first, maybe second.’
“So I knew I had a chance to go first round, but it wasn’t guaranteed. If it’s not guaranteed, I wanted to work to improve and with the talent we have, have a better year. All those pieces fell into place.”
Multiple pieces appear to be falling in place for Tech coach Paul Hewitt, who has had to cope with his share of early departees to the NBA: Jarrett Jack, Chris Bosh, Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young.
Beyond the return of Lawal, who averaged 15.1 points and 9.5 rebounds last season on the way to earning third team All-ACC honors, fifth-year senior guard D’Andre Bell – whose leadership was missed last season as the Yellow Jackets went 12-19 – will be back after undergoing surgery to address a spinal issue.
Throw in one of the nation’s most highly regarded recruiting classes, a six-player group (although Kammeon Holsey’s status is in question because of a summer knee injury) paced by center Derrick Favors of South Atlanta High, and there is cause for jubilation.
Only after a exhausting fact-finding process that wore Lawal out, however, did he decide to remain a Jacket.
“My first NBA event was a pre-draft combine (in Chicago May 27-31),” he said. “I did a bunch of interviews with teams. All the coaches and GMs are there, in different hotel rooms. Then, we never played, but did a bunch of drills. We also did physical testing like vertical jump, lane agility sprints, testing your your heart rate and so forth.”
Good thing there was humor involved.
Chances are, you’ve never been through an interview like some that Lawal sat through. NBA officials consider answers, but look just as hard at how young men react.
“Mostly, it’s about how you can help their team. They ask you to describe your experience at Tech,” he recalled, chuckling as be began to recall some stranger queries. “Most of all they ask questions to see how you’re going to respond. One of them asked me what the longest river is.
“They’ll ask normal questions, and then what’s the biggest tallest mountain. I’m like, `I don’t know; Kilimanjaro?’
Lawal recalls working out at New Jersey, Golden State, Minnesota, New Orleans, Detroit, Sacramento and Chicago, often with representatives from multiple NBA teams present.
“I didn’t play much this summer because that was a tiring process,” the 6-foot-9 Norcross High graduate said. “I flew from a workout in New Jersey to Sacramento, like seven hours, and then had to get off the plane and workout again.”
Hewitt didn’t make the trips, yet Lawal said, “He was pretty involved. We talked once or twice a week. He wasn’t hovering; he was there for support. He got feedback from some [NBA] officials.”
Meanwhile, Lawal’s once and future Tech teammates stayed at a long arm’s length.
“They were all the same way, [saying] `If you come back, we’re going to be really good. If you don’t, get me tickets.’ Nobody twisted my arms,” he said. “I’ve got a good relationship with all my teammates. That made the decision easy. I knew I was coming back to a good situation.”
The fact that he could graduate with a degree in business management next summer by staying in school was all the more reason to return.
So back to work, back to Gani Lawal’s personal proving ground.
“I’m just focused on simplicity. I want to be in the 70s or 80s (percent) from free throw line,” he said. “As far as my game, I’m working on overall polish, my 15-footer, my post moves. But I’m really focusing on those free throws. Can’t be successful shooting 55 percent.
“I made the decision 100 percent. My parents [Gani Sr. and Michelle] just wanted me to make a decision where I could sleep at night. When I made the decision, I was comfortable. I slept well. No regrets. I haven’t looked back.”