Lawal seizing the moment at Tech

Junior season rewarding thus far for star forward

The elder Gani Lawal asked his son, the leading scorer at Georgia Tech, to write a one-page paper. At this stage of the season, the title could have dealt with any number of pressing issues: "Why We Can't Beat FSU." "The Zen of the Free Throw." Or "Am I NBA-Ready Yet?"

Instead, the paper his father ordered was headed, "Importance of Good Credit."

A page later, the junior forward concluded, "Overall, I really am going to strive harder to be more on top of my finances and maintaining my credit at a good score and in good standing while keeping a good history of paying my monthly cycles on time. Good credit is essential to financial happiness and a much less stressful life."

Not exactly the kind of stuff that makes the blood rise before tip-off. But who's to say that is not a lesson any aspiring pro badly needs?

Lawal went through a grueling decision process before returning to Tech for his junior season. He and his family did all the careful research required and decided that the springy 6-9 forward would not be a sure-fire NBA first-rounder. But, as is obvious by the homework his father occasionally assigns, the decision was about more than where Lawal would be taken in the draft.

We take you back to the late 1980s when a Nigerian immigrant Georgia State student met a young woman from Newnan. They married and Michelle Lawal had Gani just before her 20th birthday.

The newborn weighed a modest 7 pounds, 5 ounces, but was more than 24 inches long.

"My little thin pencil," Michelle said. His feet were so big that the nurse had trouble fitting imprints of them on the birth registration card.

Four years later, the couple was divorced, but as Michelle Lawal says now, laughing, "The only thing we agreed on was the raising of Gani."

'No going back'

They, of course, became immersed in the basketball culture as their son grew and grew. Michelle still keeps score at Norcross High basketball games, she loves it that much.

But they never allowed the basketball to be the end-all.

As Gani was weighing his options after the disappointing 2008-09 Tech season, there were a multitude of factors dancing in his head.

There was the voice of his father, who came from Africa to this country on a student visa, whose own parents considered education to be the path to everything worthwhile. Gani Sr. still today tells his son, "The single most important thing you can do is put me in position to attend your graduation."

There was the example of his mother, who set aside her own dreams of college, as well as the last moments of her youth, when she had Gani.

"Once you get into the grown-up world, there is no going back," she said. "I want him to enjoy this time and not look back and wonder if he missed anything."

Lawal sorted through it all and finally made his parents quite glad by staying at Georgia Tech.

And when he decided he was in, he was all in.

Take his mother's spirit.

Add his father's good and serious intent.

Throw in his own athletic gifts, as well as a sense of mission this season, and what results is "one guy who gives all he's got — every bit of it," said forward Zach Peacock.

Lawal is not the only player on the floor, this he knows. "We have a great team,'' he said. "We'll never have this same group of guys again. Zach and D'Andre (Bell) obviously won't be here again. They're seniors. What I'm going to do, I'm not sure right now. Derrick [Favors], a lot of people say he's one-and-done, and there's a good possibility he is. A lot of undecided factors. That's why we want to make the best of it right now."

Lawal is majoring in business management with an emphasis on finance. Numbers run in the family. His mother handles the books at a landscaping company, and his father, with his Georgia State math degree, brokers mortgages.

So, Lawal is well able to count the numbers that Georgia Tech brings to game day, the depth that Paul Hewitt throws at an opponent like beads at Mardi Gras.

Still, he places much responsibility of what the season might become on a single head.

"I said coming back that there's a lot of pressure on myself," he said.

"I'm going to put [this team, this season] on my back. Take full responsibility for it. Not that it's all about me. But that shows you the type of mindset I had. We have to play well as a collective unit, everyone has to contribute. But I said if I don't improve as a player and we don't have a good season, then me coming back was in vain. I don't think that's going to happen. I know that's not going to happen."

The mentor

Lawal's minutes per game is actually down slightly from a season ago, as are his points and rebounds. Yet his impact is up.

The leadership that Lawal provides comes in a series of small installments, many that go unseen by the paying customers.

There are the regular players meetings after games and practices in which he might echo the concerns of the coaches.

There is the relationship with his young front court partner, the freshman Favors. It is one thing for a coach to try to tell the kid about what he is going to experience in his first road game at Chapel Hill. It is another for Lawal to chime in about the noise and the fact that you pretty much have to lose a limb to get a call.

"He has helped me out a lot," said Favors. "In the weight room. About how it's going to be in the ACC. About what to expect in different arenas, how to play when the refs call cheap fouls, how to keep improving."

There also are the messages he conveys to teammates before a game. "The whole thing is when we hit the floor we're in a good mood and ready to have fun. We want to play basketball the right way. But we also want to have fun. It's not worth doing if you're not having fun."

"Clearly," said Hewitt of Lawal's season so far, "he is more vocal than he ever has been in the locker room or on the court. Not only is he providing enthusiasm, he's also providing some direction."

The personal rewards of returning for his junior season have been small signs of growth in areas that obviously were lacking a season ago — like free throw shooting and interior passing. There remains work to do on those fine points, as well as developing a jump shot to go along with his authoritative work at the rim.

Hewitt will tell you that this season has really strengthened Lawal's grasp of the intangibles.

"It can't even begin to quantify how much more mature he is and how much more he understands what you have to do to be successful," the coach said.

There will be another decision to make at the close of this season, when Lawal re-evaluates his position in the NBA draft. No one has tipped his hand just yet. Lawal's father insists that his son returning for a senior season is not out of the question.

The important thing, all parties agree, is to seize this moment. In another of his regular dispatches to his boy, Lawal's father recently sent an e-mail concerning the ever-shifting sands of life. Look at Bobby Bowden, he wrote. Once an icon at Florida State, by the end, he was practically being chased out of his office. The lesson: Your time comes, your time goes. Make the most of it.

And, oh, yes, always keep your credit straight.

Meet Gani Lawal

Age: 21

Height, weight: 6-9, 234

High School: Norcross, where he led team to AAAAA state championship in 2007, was Georgia's Mr. Basketball and carried a 3.8 GPA.

Season highlights: Nine double-doubles thus far this season; 29 points twice in a game (vs. Chattanooga and Charlotte); 21 points, 9 rebounds vs. Duke; third in ACC in rebounding average, sixth in field goal percentage, seventh in blocks.

Season lowlight: Only 5 points in a second loss to FSU.

Stats: 2008: 32 G (25 starts); 7.2 ppg; 3.5 rpg; 32 blocks. 2009: 31 G (30 starts); 15.1 ppg; 9.5 rpg; 46 blocks. 2010 (through Thursday): 20 G (20 starts); 14.7 ppg; 9.2 rpg; 27 blocks.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.