Canada’s Law­son should feel at home when the Game­cocks face No. 5 Michi­gan

The State - - Sports - BY AN­DREW RAMSPACHER [email protected]­tate.com

Since con­fer­ence ex­pan­sion has yet to cross in­ter­na­tional bor­ders, South Carolina’s Satur­day matchup with Michi­gan will have to serve as A.J. Law­son’s home­com­ing game.

David Cooper, Law­son’s for­mer coach at GTA Prep in On­tario, will be among sev­eral friends and fam­ily mem­bers in at­ten­dance at the Crisler Cen­ter as the Game­cocks (4-3) will try to stun the No. 5 Wolver­ines (9-0). It’s five-hour drive from Law­son’s home base in Canada to Ann Ar­bor. The fresh­man guard is sure to spot fa­mil­iar faces in the crowd, but also on the op­pos­ing team.

Both USC and UM are led in scor­ing by rook­ies from the north. Toronto’s Law­son is av­er­ag­ing just un­der 15 points per game for the Game­cocks. Oak-

ville, On­tario’s Ig­nas Brazdeikis is at 17 a con­test for the Wolver­ines.

“They didn’t play each other in high school,” Cooper said. “But they played against each other all the time just grow­ing up in the cir­cuit, train­ing with one an­other and things like that.”

The two are among the top 100 prospects for the 2019 NBA Draft, ac­cord­ing to Sam Vece­nie’s “Big Board” pub­lished to The Ath­letic on Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon.

Fel­low Cana­di­ans on the list in­clude No. 2 R.J. Bar­rett (Duke), No. 28 Nick­eil Alexan­der-Walker (Vir­ginia Tech), No. 31 Simi Shittu (Van­der­bilt) and No. 94 Oshae Bris­sett (Syra­cuse).

Law­son, a 6-foot-7 guard, is No. 49 on the list. Brazdeikis, a 6-7 for­ward, is No. 50.

“Iron sharp­ens iron and that’s what they’re do­ing right now,” said Elias Sbiet, a Cana­dian re­cruit­ing an­a­lyst for NorthPoleHoops.com.

“I think they both went to lev­els that are good for their devel­op­ment. Hope­fully they’ll match up against each other be­cause it would be a cool one for sure. I think iron will con­tinue to sharpen iron in that stance as well.

“Th­ese guys are su­per mo­ti­vated, have al­ways had a good head on their shoul­ders. We’ve con­sid­ered them NBA prospects for a few years. Th­ese are guys that are rep­re­sent­ing the next wave of Cana­dian bas­ket­ball. And I think a big part of it is the growth of the prep scene out here.”

Carolina coach Frank Martin is no stranger to Canada. He first scouted the coun­try when he was an as­sis­tant at North­east­ern in the early 2000s.

While at USC, he’s landed Toronto’s Duane No­tice and Law­son. One was the 2016 SEC Sixth Man of the Year and a key cog on a Fi­nal Four team and the other’s al­ready earned one SEC Fresh­man of the Week honor.

“It’s no dif­fer­ent than go­ing into New York City, Chicago,” Martin said of re­cruit­ing Toronto. “It’s the same deal. They’re com­pet­i­tive, they know the game. They got pride.

“When I say they have pride, I’m not try­ing to say other peo­ple don’t have pride. They have pride for what that game means to them.

“Some peo­ple play bas­ket­ball be­cause it’s what you do in the win­ter, but they don’t fight for the game. Those kids in Toronto, they got pride for the game. They fight for the game.

“That’s the same way as kids from Chicago or New York City.”

Cooper, who’s been in charge at GTA Prep since 2016, was born in the Vir­gin Is­lands and has lived in Florida and New Hamp­shire. He played col­lege ball at James Madi­son in Vir­ginia.

“I think what makes the cir­cuit so dif­fer­ent is that the rules in Canada are dif­fer­ent than they are in the U.S.,” Cooper said. “Guys are able to train more year round. Their struc­ture and devel­op­ment is some­what of a Euro­pean ap­proach, get the best of both worlds, in terms of the club re­ally push­ing and pro­mot­ing the mar­ket­ing side of things and push­ing the pro­fes­sion­al­ism of the club teams.

“They’re train­ing th­ese guys from early on.”

Law­son first stood out to Sbiet as a 10th grader. Law­son was a long, lanky scorer who had Sbiet see­ing Tracy McGrady.

“He was han­dling the rock, he was cre­at­ing off the drib­ble,” Sbiet said. “I think he was a very long point point guard who could have suc­cess. Cou­ple years later, that’s what we got.”

For which Sbiet tips his hat to Cooper.

“Coach (Cooper) is a big piece of A.J. Law­son’s devel­op­ment,” he said.

“He helped him evolve his guard game, he helped him build his 3-point shot through­out the sum­mer and it’s start­ing to show now. You’re see­ing him im­prove his 3-point shoot­ing, although it does need work. He’s def­i­nitely been im­prov­ing and Coach has been a big part of that process.”

USC was re­cruit­ing an­other GTA Prep player (cen­ter Kaosi Ezeagu, an even­tual UTEP signee) when it dis­cov­ered Law­son. Dur­ing a trip to Florida for a tour­na­ment last fall, Cooper reached out to Carolina as­sis­tant Chuck Martin to let him know they’d be driv­ing through Columbia.

It was 11 p.m., but Martin got out of bed to meet the team and un­lock a few doors.

“He showed us the school, the cam­pus, the best he could at 11:30,” Cooper said.

“He was so warm and wel­com­ing with all the kids, took pic­tures, toured the fa­cil­ity. A.J. re­ally liked it. It re­ally res­onated with him.”

Law­son, af­ter re­clas­si­fy­ing, com­mit­ted to the Game­cocks in June. It all comes full cir­cle Satur­day.

“We’re ex­cited to see him play,” Cooper said.

“I think how Frank’s us­ing him now, in terms of hav­ing the ball in his hands and al­low­ing him to make de­ci­sions, I think it’s phe­nom­e­nal. That’s ex­actly what we were look­ing for with A.J.

“I talked to some NBA teams about him and they’re ex­cited about what he has to of­fer be­cause of those in­tan­gi­bles.”

JEFF BLAKE [email protected]­tate.com

South Carolina guard A.J. Law­son will be five hours from his Cana­dian home­town dur­ing a road game against Michi­gan.

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