Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Norcross High School graduate Gani Lawal recently returned to his alma mater to speak to a group of children at a basketball camp. The former Georgia Tech All-ACC player spent most of 2011-12 season with overseas teams. He looks to make a return to the NBA this coming season.
Norcross boys basketball coach Jesse McMillan, addressing his young summer-campers last week, gave former Blue Devil Gani Lawal a lengthy introduction.
He listed the many credentials of Lawal, the day's featured speaker, including his two high school state championships and his status as a McDonald's All-American. He bragged about the 6-foot-9 power forward's success at Georgia Tech and his career in pro basketball, setting up this point.
"Even though he was a star player, (Lawal) worked like he didn't have a spot on the team," McMillan said.
Lawal is working just as hard this summer as he did back then. And this time, he really doesn't have a spot on a team.
After finishing his season with the French team, Roanne, in early June, Lawal began training for a return to the NBA. A season-ending knee injury in 2010-11 and the timing of the well-publicized lockout made his first tenure in the NBA a brief one.
He plans to stay longer this time around.
"I feel really good (about my NBA chances)," said Lawal, who is still just 23. "I know by October I'm going to be on some team's NBA roster. Not only that, I'm going to make an impact on whoever's NBA roster I'm on. They'll be the lucky ones."
Lawal's first NBA experience came with the Phoenix Suns, who selected him in the second round of the 2010 draft. The two-time All-ACC pick at Georgia Tech then had a great showing in the NBA Summer League, averaging 15.4 points and 7.4 rebounds and earning all-tournament honors in the prestigious league for rookies, young players and other free agents.
The dominating effort led to a good contract, important since NBA second-round picks aren't guaranteed contracts, but it didn't translate into immediate playing time in Phoenix. He was sent to the NBA D-League's Iowa Energy for a 10-game run, where he averaged 11.2 points and 6 rebounds and earned a return trip to the NBA.
Unfortunately, his NBA playing experience in 2010-11 was just one game.
"I was just starting to get acclimated to the system, the Knicks were in town the next day for a big game, the first game there since Amare (Stoudemire) left, and Coach told me I was going to start," Lawal said. "I was super excited and I had a great practice. Practice was almost over. I got the ball on the blocks, made a move and tore my ACL."
The Suns' renowned medical staff got Lawal through surgery and rehabilitation entering the 2011-12 season, which was shortened because of the lockout. He signed with Zastal ZG of Poland during the NBA work stoppage and averaged 14.7 points and 10.2 rebounds in 13 games.
When NBA play resumed, Lawal was waived by the Suns because of their depth at power forward. He signed with the San Antonio Spurs, then was waived again after playing briefly in the preseason.
Without a spot on an NBA roster, Lawal averaged 18.4 points and 12.3 rebounds for Xinjiang FT in China. He finished the 2011-12 season with Roanne.
"I had never been overseas (before last year)," Lawal said. "I told my mama, 'This year made me a man.' Although I'm playing basketball, I'm in a foreign land by myself. Don't get it twisted, I was grateful to be playing. But I don't know the language. Other people over there have significant others or people and I'm over there by myself the entire time. All I do is go hoop, come back to an empty apartment. It's freezing cold most of the time where I was. Man, it was different."
Lawal could find immediate work overseas in pro basketball for this season, but that's not his goal. He wants to play in the NBA again.
He could get a big boost from his upcoming return trip to the NBA Summer League, slated for July 13-22 in Las Vegas. Though he isn't under contract with Denver, he will play for the Nuggets' summer team in the showcase. Denver is one of the teams most interested in Lawal thus far, but all NBA teams will be scouting free agents like Lawal next month.
Until he leaves for Las Vegas, Lawal is training hard locally at Norcross and at Georgia Tech. He doesn't mind putting in the work --he never did.
Whether he was guaranteed a roster spot or not.
"I feel great about how hard I've worked," Lawal said. "That's not just something I say. I can say it with conviction because I live it. For me, it's hard work in all I do. It's what gotten me through to this point. It's that and staying positive. You have to keep a positive attitude when life throws you curveballs."