In advance of the 2020 NBA Draft, Peachtree Hoops is evaluating prospects with a look at what the Atlanta Hawks might be considering from now until the selection process occurs. Dozens of prospects will profiled in this space and, in this installment, we break down South Carolina wing AJ Lawson.
AJ Lawson demonstrated notable improvement from his freshman season at South Carolina to his sophomore season in 2019-20. His box score stats may not reflect that growth on the surface, but Lawson became a more efficient offensive player as he improved his game inside the three-point line.
After playing a lot of point guard at the collegiate level, he doesn’t quite project to have a natural position as an NBA prospect. From a skill set perspective, he would operate best as a wing that functions away the ball. As of now, Lawson lacks the offensive creation skills to be trusted to handle the basketball in a professional setting. He is also an intelligent player with a functional, repeatable shot. Lawson’s shooting motion is quite mechanical and will need to be sped up a bit to work at the next level. With that said, the technique and discipline he demonstrates across the board bodes well for future improvement as a shooter and, potentially, as a ball handler.
All told, Lawson shot 35.4%, across 295 attempts, from beyond the three-point arc in his two collegiate seasons. Still, his improvement at the free throw line (66.4% as a freshman, 72.4% as a sophomore) provokes some level of enthusiasm in his ceiling as a shooter.
He makes enough flashy plays on offense to suggest that he may be able to grow into a play maker but, with the basketball in the half court, he is largely a straight-line driver. Lawson shows little, if any, ability to work horizontally to set up and get by his defender. He has a basic right-to-left crossover dribble that he will use at times, but it is unlikely to serve him effectively at the NBA level.
Lawson was average, statistically, in catch and shoot opportunities at South Carolina, but he demonstrates enough balance and motion repeatability to generate encouragement that he could grow into a passable floor spacer in time. Despite lacking a robust dribble package, he is just solid enough as a ball handler to suggest that there might some possibility that he develop as a secondary creator.
In addition, he possesses an impressively quick first step. If Lawson can become a reliable floor-spacing shooter, that first step could become a foundational part of what he uses to attack close out defenders.
In the pick and roll, Lawson is a better passer than a scorer, at least in the present. He sees the floor well and delivers the ball on time and target. Regardless of situation, he consistently retreats with the basketball when facing any amount of ball pressure in half-court settings, which NBA defenses could throw at him constantly.
Defensively, especially in the area of team defense, he is a coach’s dream. He is an excellent organizer and communicator. He’s as on time in help defense as one will ever see in a 19-year-old. He remains consistently oriented to both his man and the basketball.
It is next to impossible to find an example of him not being on the balls of his feet and very quickly diagnosing the offensive action while instructing his teammates as how to cover each defensive assignment. However, it will be imperative that Lawson develop into a viable point-of-attack defender to have any realistic chance of emerging as a viable rotation player for an NBA team. In short, this is an area he has a very long way to go.
The explosive first step Lawson shows on offense just does not exist on the defensive end of the court. He reacts strongly to jab steps and a change of direction dribbles.
Despite his value as a team defender, NBA teams will force Lawson to demonstrate that he can hold up defending on the ball.
The above possession offers a glimpse into how solid Lawson is in defending off the ball. He sees all screens, traffic, etc. and is proactive in his footwork and body positioning.
This play provides a view into how seamlessly he moves into help defense at the paint and back to his original assignment.
His help technique could go into a defensive textbook. He makes himself as tall and wide as possible to discourage further ball dribble penetration.
His defensive range is reminiscent of former first-round pick Zhaire Smith.
There is more of the same on this possession, with great work overall.
Too much of his defense, at the point of attack, looks like it does in the above clip.
Young players that demonstrate this much coherent team defense ability often have a background playing in the international setting. Lawson played excellently for team Canada in under-18/19 FIBA tournaments over the past several years.
After being recruited largely as a top-100 player in his high school class, Lawson’s stock has risen considerably. He is still mostly projected to be a late second round pick, though, if not a prospect that could be completely undrafted.
Overall, Lawson is a smart, selfless player. These characteristics show up on both ends of the court in his effective ability to provide value away from the play. Good NBA teams generally have 2-3 trusted ball handlers/creators and need players who embrace the role of functioning away from the ball, but Lawson’s lack of size (6’6, 178 lbs) will push him toward the guard positions in most NBA lineups. He will need to develop into a player than can provide some amount of value functioning on the ball to make progress toward being a candidate to crack an NBA rotation.