COLUMBIA — If he played for Kentucky or Tennessee, he’d probably be on magazine covers.
But A.J. Lawson plays for South Carolina, and so the player considered by some to be a future first-round NBA Draft pick is deemed no better than the 13th-best player in the SEC.
“I feel underrated. Personally and for the team,” said Lawson, a 6-6 sophomore and the Gamecocks’ returning leading scorer. “We don’t get enough credit, I think.”
There are a few ways to digest Lawson’s exclusion from the preseason media ballot. Not all of the SEC’s media was allowed to vote this year, just a select few.
It’s also South Carolina, which went 16-16 last year and is without star forward Chris Silva, now with the NBA's Miami Heat. The Gamecocks were picked to finish 10th in the SEC despite coach Frank Martin posting three top-four finishes over the last four years.
Lawson is the SEC’s sixth-leading returning scorer (13.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists last season). He played for Team Canada in the Under-19 World Cup over the summer, averaging a team-best 16.4 points and 3.4 assists. Pro scouts love his wingspan and ability to score from anywhere on the floor.
It’s not new or profound for a team to mention disrespect in preseason, especially at USC.
“That’s the same group of people that kept Chris Silva off the first team at the end of last year. That’s the same group of people that omitted Sindarius (Thornwell) going into his senior year,” Martin said. “I don’t think A.J.’s bothered by that, either. I don’t want to speak for him, but he’s never made me feel like he’s bothered by it.”
Lawson can prove the voters wrong by leading the Gamecocks back to the NCAA Tournament. After two seasons that featured more injuries than wins, USC appears prepared to do that.
Losing Silva was a blow, but the Gamecocks added grad transfer Micaiah Henry, a 6-9 bruiser, to bolster a paint presence anchored by four-year starter Maik Kotsar. Sophomore Alanzo Frink steadily improved last year and stands 6-7 and a chiseled 260 pounds. Freshman Wildens Leveque can fill a lot of space at 6-11, 230.
If the modern game is controlled by the guards, the Gamecocks have plenty. Lawson leads a group of returnees that were around but mostly didn’t play last year. Justin Minaya was lost for the season after five games, with T.J. Moss closely behind. Jair Bolden sat out after transferring but will start at point guard while Jermaine Couisnard, an academic casualty last season, lit up the summer S.C. Pro-Am with his scoring.
Lawson shouldn’t have to play much point this year, enabling the Gamecocks to get him to the wing. Explosive dunker Keyshawn Bryant, who will miss the first six weeks with a knee injury, also shouldn’t have to play as much forward, putting the 6-5 jumping jack also on the wing.
Martin has proved his teams play better at the end and that they can win in the SEC. It’s a tough non-conference schedule and the start of the SEC is a slog, but a top-four finish has become the standard at USC.
“We’re the underdog, I guess. They don’t expect much,” Lawson said. “It definitely bothers me because I know we have a great team, great coaches.”