ATLANTA - Timid is a term that often accurately describes the transition for many freshmen to college basketball after coming directly from high school.
That term may not necessarily describe Gani Lawal's freshman season at Georgia Tech last year as much as, maybe, wide-eyed.
"Unsure," was the way the former Norcross standout and 2007 Daily Post Boys Player of the Year chose to put it.
So far during the early stages of the 2008-09 campaign, there's been little that has been unsure about Lawal's game.
In fact, despite coming off his lowest output of the season in a 76-57 loss to Southern California late Monday night, he's been about the closest thing the Yellow Jackets have had to a sure thing through their 7-3 start.
"He's our best player," coach Paul Hewitt said of Lawal following his 23-point, 10-rebound night in an 84-64 win over Georgia State last week. "I think there are some things he has to expand on in order to become a complete player. ... But, clearly, he's our best player. He's our go-to guy."
The numbers bear out Hewitt's assessment. Lawal trails only senior guard Lewis Clinch - who made his season debut only last week - on the team in scoring at 16.7 points per game and leads the Jackets in rebounding at 9.7 per game.
The latter of those numbers also leads the entire Atlantic Coast Conference, while his scoring average ranks eighth and his 57 percent shooting from the floor also ranks in the ACC's top 10 at fourth.
In addition, his six 10-rebound games and five double-doubles each lead the ACC after Lawal did not have even one of either as a freshman.
That's quite a leap from last season, when Lawal was an important player in Tech's rotation, but was clearly more of a follower than a leader.
Part of the difference can be attributed to physical improvements that came during the offseason.
In addition to growing an inch and adding 17 pounds of muscle to bring him up to his more imposing 6-foot-9, 233-pound frame, Lawal also worked on improving his post moves and rebounding skills constantly last summer.
However, more than the physical changes he's made to the game are the emotional and mental differences from last year.
Lawal has blossomed from the wide-eyed kid of last season into an eye-opening, more confident young man as a sophomore.
"Basketball is confidence," Lawal said. "My confidence (this season) has gone through the roof, to be honest with you. When I go out there and I'm playing hard, I feel like no one can stop me when I'm going for a board or trying to score or going after a loose ball or whatever. So my confidence is at a high point.
"I think the biggest difference is learning from all my mistakes last year and seeing how the little things affect everything. ... The mindset this year was all the small things - focus on those and you'll be successful. And I'm still working on them. There are still things I need to be doing. So, it's constant work."
And there's still plenty both Lawal and Hewitt believe he must work on to take his game to still another level, especially as opponents begin to draw up defensive plans to stop him.
Southern Cal came up with just such a plan with a series of double-teams to hold Lawal to just three points and five rebounds.
And the biggest improvement he still must make is with his free-throw shooting, which is the one area of his game that has consistently struggled throughout the early part of the season.
Lawal is hitting just 49.3 percent of his 75 attempts, the latter number being by far the most of any Tech player and on a pace for him to challenge Rich Yunkus' school record of 241 in a season.
Hewitt says his free-throw form is still a work in progress, though he is confident improvement will happen enough to make opponents pay should they try to employ a "Hack-a-Gani" strategy to try and limit the damage he does to them.
"He's taken out a lot of the unnecessary movement in his shot," Hewitt said. "I think the more he eliminates that unnecessary activity, now he's got the shot boiled down to just a couple of pieces. ... Before, he had like a six-piece shot. Now he's got it down to like a two-piece shot."
Lawal is still struggling from the line, hitting just 2-of-7 attempts during Tech's recent two-game, West coast road trip after hitting 14 of his previous 21 attempts.
Still, he continues to assert himself in the low post. That should continue as Tech's perimeter game begins to stabilize further with Clinch back from academic suspension, freshman Iman Shumpert growing into his role and starting point guard Mo Miller hoping to return from surgery to repair a nasal fracture after the New Year. He continues to get help from Alade Aminu, Zachery Peacock and Brad Sheehan down low.
"Teams have been packing (their defense) in on us," Lawal said. "Having shooters (on the perimeter) will allow us to stretch the defense out and allow us to go one-on-one (in the low post)."
SideBar: The Lawal File
· Who: Georgia Tech's Gani Lawal
· Class: Sophomore
· High school: Norcross
· Height: 6-9
· Weight: 233
· Is the Yellow Jackets' leading rebounder (9.7 rpg) and second-leading scorer (16.7 ppg) through 10 games
· Entered Monday's game at Southern Cal ranked in the top four of the ACC in scoring average, rebound average and field goal percentage (.570)
· Also entered Monday leading all returning ACC players in per-game improvement in scoring average (+11.4) and minutes per game (+8.3)
· Leads ACC in 10-rebound games (6) and double-doubles (5) after posting none of both last season
· Posted a career-high 34 points in Tech's loss to Penn State on Dec. 3. It was the most by a Jackets player since Will Bynum scored 35 on March 12, 2005, against North Carolina