LAWRENCE, Kan. — No reason exists for Dedric Lawson to try to spin this. He has played much better basketball than in his opening stretch this month at Kansas.
His shot looks off, legs a bit tired, confidence down a notch. And maybe when it clicks for Lawson, primarily just the frustration will disappear. He earned his nickname, Smooth, after all, for the way he makes the game appear almost effortless.
Lawson should have scored 30 in the opener against Michigan State and 30 more on Friday against Louisiana, coach Bill Self said. Instead, the heralded transfer from Memphis got 20 and 19 — before and after an especially rough Allen Fieldhouse debut as he was held scoreless in a KU win over Vermont on Nov. 12.
While second-ranked KU features two of the Big 12’s best in Lagerald Vick and Udoka Azubuike in addition to star freshmen Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson, Lawson is the wild card on the floor.
He can stretch a defense unlike the others and provides a rare dimension as an elite passer from his spot in the post. Most of all, the 6-foot-9 junior creates opportunities for teammates, said Vick, who is averaging 22.3 points on 61.5 -percent shooting through three games for unbeaten Kansas.
In action on Wednesday in Brooklyn, New York, against Marquette in the NIT Season Tip-Off (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2), KU can compete, no doubt, for a 15th straight Big 12 title without Lawson as a dynamic threat. But if the Jayhawks are to stage a return to the Final Four and bid for a national championship, as expected, they need more from the league’s preseason newcomer of the year.
Lawson said he believes it’s just a matter of time until he finds his top level. In fact, he said he thinks his year away from competition — Dedric and older brother, K.J. sat out last season in Lawrence after both transferred from their hometown school — ultimately will make him more valuable to the Jayhawks.
“It’s really still a learning process for me, playing with different guys,” Dedric Lawson said last week.
That year off changed Lawson. He hadn’t missed more than one or two games since he was 3, Lawson said. But once he felt at ease contributing only in practice, Lawson said he stepped back and enjoyed a new perspective.
“That was big for me,” Lawson said. “Maturing, you see things different. Watching the game, you see how people do things. I thought maybe if they’re doing it a certain way, I need to do it, too.”
Notably, Lawson saw how his brother reshaped his diet. K.J. Lawson, 18 months older than Dedric but a sophomore after he took a redshirt in 2015-16 because of a heel injury, made a dramatic shift, in fact, going full vegan.
Dedric heard LeBron James talk in an interview about the importance of eating habits. Kansas’ Svi Mykhailiuk, a senior last season, also ate well in front of Lawson. So after feeling heavy on the court and experiencing some discomfort in his knees, Lawson stopped eating red meat and fried foods. He cut back on carbs.
Bring on the turkey burgers. Immediately, he felt better on the court. And soon, Lawson dropped almost 20 pounds to his current weight around 230.
Teammates were impressed by his commitment.
“When we go to Wendy’s, I would probably get like the triple meat,” sophomore guard Marcus Garrett said. “He’d get the little salad.”
If Lawson had been playing last season, he said, he never would have found time to consider such a change and see it through. Other habits shifted. Lawson said he learned a lot about leadership from Devonte’ Graham, the Jayhawks’ floor general a year ago.
“It’s doing things the right way and setting an example,” Lawson said. “It’s about coming to practice every day and doing what coaches ask, just producing and having the right attitude every day. If the young guys see that, things will fall into place.”
All of this followed an altercation on the practice court in the summer of 2017. Self suspended Lawson from the Jayhawks’ trip that August to Italy.
It, too, contributed to his leap forward in maturity, Lawson said.
“I think he got smarter,” said guard Charlie Moore of Lawson’s year in residence. Moore also sat out last season as a transfer from Cal. The time off was difficult, but the transfers learned a lot about themselves, Moore said, while trying to better their teammates for Big 12 and postseason play.
So no, the Jayhawks aren’t worried about Lawson’s sluggish start. And it’s not necessarily related to his bid to find a flow in the new system, Self said.
“I think that’s overanalyzed,” the coach said. “He didn’t have a hard time in the exhibition games. I just think he kind of had a rough week. He’s a lot better than that. He’ll play. We obviously need him to play at a high level.”
Lawson led the American Athletic Conference in rebounding as a sophomore two seasons ago with 9.9 per game while scoring 19.2 points. His 19 double-doubles ranked 11th nationally, and he led Memphis with 68 blocked shots. As a freshman, Lawson averaged 15.8 points and 9.3 rebounds for former coach Tubby Smith.
Dedric and K.J. won three state titles at Memphis’ Hamilton High. Younger brother Chandler Lawson, the No. 56 prospect nationally in the Class of 2019 at Memphis Wooddale, recently committed to Oregon. And the youngest Lawson, Johnathan, a Wooddale sophomore, ranks 13th in the 2021 class.
Dedric’s Kansas debut statistically looked great — 20 points, 14 rebounds and 6 assists against MSU in 38 minutes, the first KU player since Nick Collison in 2003 to go for 20, 10 and 5 in a single game.
But Self has seen better from his newcomer. Foul trouble slowed him against Vermont. He never got untracked. Lawson picked up two fouls Friday in the first half against Louisiana and played just nine minutes before halftime, scoring four points as KU came back from a 12-point deficit with three starters on the bench.
He scored 15 in the second half, though Self wouldn’t entertain even the thought that Lawson began to show his full potential.
He’s 0-for-3 in three games from 3-point range after making 58 in two seasons at Memphis.
“I just want him to be aggressive and play probably a little more to his athletic ability,” Self said. “I don’t think he has really played to the point where he put himself in great positions to score.”
This transition from newcomer to some kind of a bigger role at Kansas, it’s tricky — no different than Lawson’s navigation of last season at Kansas, which worked out well for him and the Jayhawks.
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