Excited Jacket: Lawal expecting big things out of Tech

Photo by Brandon Brigman

Photo by Brandon Brigman

ATLANTA -- Gani Lawal's enthusiasm and love for basketball has always been high for as long as he can remember.

So, a recent proclamation by the Georgia Tech post player may be a strong statement about the Yellow Jackets' potential as they tip off the 2009-10 season Saturday at Alexander Memorial Coliseum against Florida A&M.

"I'm going to be honest with you. I haven't been this excited for a basketball season to get started since my senior year in high school," the 6-foot-9, 234-pound junior said. "That's not to say I haven't been excited going into other seasons, but I'm just really looking forward to this year."

The senior year Lawal referred to in comparison was the 2006-07 season, in which he helped Norcross to the second of its three straight Class AAAAA state championships and was named the Daily Post's Boys Player of the Year.

The talent level of the personnel Lawal will be surrounded by this season at Tech is parallel to the high school talent he had around him at Norcross in that championship season.

Back then Lawal had the likes of current college standouts like Al-Farouq Aminu (Wake Forest), Tony Neysmith (Auburn) and Jordan DeMercy (Florida State).

This year, he has what figures to be an equally strong supporting cast this season though a combination of returning teammates from last season like guard Iman Shumpert and forward Zachery Peacock, plus a recruiting class with as strong a pedigree as his own, paced by nationally top-ranked forward Derrick Favors.

That strong personnel have led to some high expectations for Lawal and the Jackets, and not just from themselves.

Tech has been included in several preseason top 25 polls, including a No. 22 ranking in the Associated Press preseason poll, and has been eyed as a possible challenger to traditional powers like defending national champion North Carolina and Duke in the ACC.

Those are some pretty lofty expectations considering the fact Tech went a disappointing 12-19 last season, but Lawal believes they are not unreasonable goals.

"We have all the pieces," Lawal said. "Now, what we have to do is take those pieces translate to wins and success. We're still in the process of doing that in practice -- putting in plays and building chemistry.

"We've put expectations on ourselves. We can't get bogged down with expectations of others. I feel like if we do what we're supposed to do, we'll succeed and go beyond what everybody expects us to do."

Less than five months ago, it wasn't certain that Lawal would be around to be one of those pieces.

A solid sophomore season in which he averaged 15.1 points and 9.5 rebounds -- earning him third-team All-ACC honors -- made him a potential NBA Draft prospect, a tempting possibility given Tech's struggles his first two seasons there.

And he initially tested the NBA waters before electing to return to school a week before the June draft despite projections of him being a late first-round selection.

Lawal said he regrets neither decision, and found working out for several NBA teams quite an eye-opening experience.

"I just felt like I needed to get better (before turning pro), bottom line," Lawal said. "I just needed to come back and improve and be part of a good team and also with a phenomenal freshman class that we signed.

"I did go through the process 50-50 (on whether to stay in the draft or return to Tech). ... It was really good experience. I went through the workouts, talked to (NBA general managers) and scouts. I just learned things about my game ... things that I know, but it doesn't hurt to hear second or third opinions on."

How well Lawal improves upon those areas of his game will be seen throughout the season.

However, Tech coach Paul Hewitt has already noticed one positive change in his star big man.

"You do notice he's really excited about the possibilities of this season," Hewitt said. "His effort level had remained high. And there's a assuredness about him."

Hewitt also noted that any improvements made to his game aren't necessarily ones that will show up on the scoresheet.

"I think that will be something (to watch)," Hewitt said. "He may not get the 10 rebounds or 15 of 16 points per game that he had last season, and people will say, 'Well, he's not the same (as last year).' But I'm here to tell you, he's much improved from last year."

Indeed, with scoring threats like Favors on the inside and Shumpert on the outside, plus other strong rebounders like Favors and Peacock around, Lawal may have to sacrifice some individual numbers for the team on occasion.

And that just fine by him.

"It's not an ego thing," Lawal said. "I just want to play and win. I know (everybody else) does, too. So, as far as touches go, that's not a concern."