Bill Hass on the ACC: Gani Lawal Makes Indelible Mark with His New 'Recipe'
Feb. 5, 2009
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - There's a kind of consistency you can pencil in and another kind you can write with permanent ink.
Consider double-figure rebounding for Gani Lawal in the latter category.
No one in the ACC this season has worked harder on the boards than the Georgia Tech sophomore. He leads the league with a 10.4 average in all games and a 10.9 mark in league contests. In seven conference games, Lawal has grabbed 10 rebounds five times and 17 rebounds once. His ACC low so far is nine.
"Rebounding is just one thing - effort," he said. "I can't get every one, but in my mind I think that everything that comes off the rim is mine and that's how I attack it. I take that attitude and try to add good position when the ball is shot, whether we have it or we're on defense. Once it comes off the rim, go get it."
Lawal said the first priority is to get his body on someone to "root them out of there and create space." He also watches where the ball is shot because it usually comes off on the opposite side. Or, if it's a 3-point attempt, he knows it will be a long rebound.
"That's another thing I pride myself on, getting a rebound that's not just in my area, but (one that's) out of my area, too," he said. "A lot of guys just get what comes to them; I try to pride myself on going to go get the ball wherever it goes, whether it's right there on the front of the rim or at the top of the key."
Lawal's work on the boards will be important, as always, when the Yellow Jackets play on the road at Florida State tonight, then come home to play Maryland on Sunday. After a frustrating start to the ACC season in which Tech lost its first six games, three in overtime, it broke through with a win over Wake Forest last Saturday.
While Lawal admitted that the win felt good, he knows it's just the first step.
"We definitely feel confident of beating anybody, so it was good for us to get that first win and kind of get us rolling," he said. "It won't be the cure-all because you've got to play every game. It definitely helps to get that first win on the board (but the) Wake Forest (game) is over now."
Lawal is one of the most improved players in the ACC. Much was expected of him after a spectacular high school career in Norcross, Ga., that included two state championships and the designation of Mr. Basketball in the state in his senior year.
While you wouldn't call his freshman year disappointing - averages of 7.2 points and 3.5 rebounds - he only showed flashes of his ability to dominate games. But he wasn't able to stay on the floor, averaging only 17.2 minutes per game. This season, he's up to 30.9 minutes, 16.1 points and 10.4 rebounds.
There never has been any question of how hard Lawal plays, but this season he's better suited for the rigors of the college game.
"I think the biggest difference between last year and this year is he's in so much better physical condition," said Tech coach Paul Hewitt. "He's taking great care of his body. He's never been a guy that ate poorly, but he's really paid attention to what he's doing to prepare his body for practice and games.
"I think the increased conditioning has led to more rebounds. He's always tried to get rebounds, but he fatigued quickly last year and that's why he only played 17-18 minutes a game. Now he can play 32-33 minutes a game because he's in superior physical condition. He's always been a hard, hard worker and he's got a great motor for the game."
Lawal is 6-9, 233 pounds and admits "I'm a big guy and I like to eat." He said he stays away from fried foods and tries to eat a lot of baked foods like fish and pasta.
One thing that helped him get in better shape was Hewitt's preseason conditioning regimen of track work - several sprints each of 50, 100, 200 and 400 meters, starting at 6 a.m.
"I can't speak for the other guys, but for me the track was a tough, tough workout for preseason conditioning," Lawal said. "Last year there were times I had to come out because I was so tired. And I'm not saying I don't get tired this year, but one or two times I get a quick breather and I'm good for the rest of the game. I fatigue less."
The ability to stay on the court longer has made preparing for Lawal a headache for coaches around the ACC.
"He has just turned into a man-child," said Florida State's Leonard Hamilton. "He's pounding the glass and rebounding and finishing his plays. He's strong physically, he blocks shots, he's been the guy who has really come on as fast as any player that I've seen in the ACC in several years."
Lawal also earned the admiration of Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio after a 25-point, 10-rebound performance.
"I told our guys before the game that I put him in the same category with (North Carolina's Tyler) Hansbrough and (Clemson's Trevor) Booker and (Miami's Dwayne) Collins," Gaudio said. "Strong, physical, hard-nosed players. I have the utmost respect for the kid, not for how many points he scored, but gosh darn, the kid plays hard. He's a tough, hard-nosed kid, a terrific, terrific player."
In the context of playing so hard, it might sound odd to say that Lawal has actually slowed down this season. Not in effort, but in the way he's more patient and doesn't rush things.
"Last year he was always in a hurry when he got the ball in his hands," Hewitt said. "He tried to out-quick people to the shot, out-quick people to the rim as opposed to getting to the ball and seeing where the defense is.
"When he hurries and he doesn't recognize the people around him, he'll get the ball stripped from him. When he's patient and plays with poise down there, he knows where the defense is and where they're coming from and it's very difficult to get the ball out of his hands."
Lawal said he has a better feel for the game in the post this year. He watched a lot of film during the summer and learned to recognize where the defense was in different situations. He absorbed that and put it in what he called "the recipe for me playing better this year."
"I feel like I'm a lot more poised and I'm taking my time a little bit more as far as when I get the ball in the post," Lawal said. "Once I read where the defense is, I just make my move and I feel my instincts guide me. A lot of times (last year), I would force it right into the defense's plan (whereas) if I had made one little quick adjustment I would have scored. This year I feel I read the defenses better and I take my time down there on the block."
And the scary thing, at least for the ACC, is that Hewitt believes Lawal is going to get even better.
"It's a work in progress," Hewitt said. "He's having a great year; in my mind he's our most important player. But there're still some things he can work on.
"The thing I've talked to him about all year, in addition to playing with more poise and more patience in the post, is, if he can ever get to the point where he's a 75 percent free throw shooter, in my mind he becomes somewhat un-guardable."
Ah, free throws. For the season, Lawal is shooting better from the floor (56.2 percent) than from the foul line (54.5 percent). But he burned Wake Forest with an 11-for-14 showing at the line.
Lawal said he works constantly on his free throws in practice. One thing he hasn't done is make any changes in his form.
"I'm just focusing on where to put it, right over the front of the rim" he said. "And knowing how much mustard to put on it; a lot of times I shoot it too hard or too soft. That's my biggest thing - keep that same, constant flow on the ball, right up to the rim, not shooting too hard or too soft, shooting it just right. Once I get that feeling, then I just try to duplicate it every time."
During the tough start to the ACC season, Lawal said Tech's players never lost confidence. Like it is for so many teams in the league, the difference between winning and losing is razor-thin. Playing good basketball for 35 to 37 minutes isn't enough if you don't make good plays down the stretch.
And Lawal recited plenty of examples of those.
"Getting loose balls down the stretch, locking teams down when the shot clock is dwindling down, getting that key rebound, taking our time in our sets down the stretch," he said. "If we can make key plays down the stretch and finish things off and make enough free throws as well, I think we can do some good things."
And maybe the Jackets can write down a few more wins in permanent ink.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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