Dedric Lawson says he feels good, but his voice betrays him. His normally smooth Southern accent has vanished in this phone call, and instead he sounds like Patrick Mahomes shouting into a fast food speaker box. Then he clears his throat and admits in a softer voice: "Well, I do have a little cold, but my body feels good."
That Lawson can still stand is something of a miracle for Kansas. Perhaps no player in the Big 12 has carried a larger load for his team than the 6'9", 235-pound forward has for the Jayhawks. When Lawson and I first met in October, Kansas was the preseason No. 1 team in the nation. Lawson hoped and expected that the offense would flow through him, but he was thrilled to be playing for such a deep squad. The roster was jam-packed with returning contributors, high-major transfers and 4- or 5-star freshmen. In fact, in crowning Kansas No. 1, the AP wrote that there "might not be enough minutes to go around."
As the NCAA tournament approaches, that line looks closer to a curse than a prophecy. Kansas has tumbled to No. 17 in the AP poll and fell short of its 15th-straight Big 12 regular-season championship in part because it has been plagued by roster problems. Silvio De Sousa hasn't seen the floor due to an ongoing NCAA inquiry into impermissible benefits. Udoka Azubuike was lost for the season after sustaining a hand injury in a January practice. Lagerald Vick will not return to the team after leaving to deal with a personal matter in February. And the top-30 freshmen—Quentin Grimes, David McCormack and Devon Dotson—have endured so many growing pains that coach Bill Self burned 4-star freshman wing Ochai Agbaji's redshirt to give his team a lift he never thought it would need.
Through it all, Lawson has been Kansas' constant. He transferred to one of the country's premier programs with a purpose: He wanted to show that he could post the same numbers in the Power 5 that he was able to in the AAC. And he wanted to prove that his poor performance at the NBA Draft Combine in 2016 didn't matter compared to what he could do on the court. The results? Lawson has played 32.7 minutes per night and averaged a double-double. According to kenpom.com, he's among the top 15 players in the Big 12 in percentage of minutes played, usage rate, true-shooting percentage, offensive and defensive rebounding rate, block percentage, fouls drawn per 40 minutes and free-throw shooting percentage.
"Whenever we need a basket or a rebound," assistant coach Jerrance Howard said, "we lean on him. Every time his number is called, he produces. He's kept us all together. He's been our backbone."
Dedric Lawson's first college choice was clear from the start. He is the second born in the first family of Memphis basketball. His father and mother, Keelon and Dedra, played collegiately and coached in the city. His older brother, K.J., was a consensus top-50 recruit. Dedric was top 40. Younger brothers Chandler, a senior in high school and future Oregon Duck, and Johnathan, a freshman, are 4-star prospects. And their cousin, D.J. Jeffries, is a 4-star Memphis signee.
Back in the fall of 2013, when K.J. was a junior in high school, he committed to Josh Pastner at Memphis. The following July, in a controversial move that has become almost commonplace in college basketball, Pastner hired Keelon as an assistant coach. A couple months later, Dedric, then a junior, decided to reclassify and join his brother and father on the Tigers a year early. "There really wasn't that much to it," Dedric said. "When he committed and then my dad became a coach, I just thought, 'Well, I might as well commit, too.'"
K.J.'s freshman season was cut short by an Achilles injury, but Dedric was dominant. He averaged 15.8 points and 9.3 rebounds in 32.4 minutes a night and entered the NBA draft in April. But the combine did not go according to plan. DraftExpress dubbed him "the worst athlete" at the event. His lane agility, three-quarter court sprint and shuttle run were among the slowest recorded that year, and he failed to make a single three-pointer in Chicago.
"We knew the things they were going to say," K.J. said. "We never lifted weights until the 12th grade. Things like that don't matter, but it matters to them [NBA teams]. Dedric has always been motivated, and he's always been a great talent with a great work ethic, but what happened at the combine definitely added fuel to the fire."
Dedric hadn't hired an agent, so he was free to return to school. He did so with a new level of determination. But the school had changed that summer, too. Gone was Pastner, who fled to Georgia Tech before potentially being fired. In was Tubby Smith, the old-school coach who took Keelon off the bench and relegated him to Director of Player Development. Dedric increased his output to 19.2 points and 9.9 rebounds in 34.5 minutes per game, and K.J. won the AAC Newcomer of the Year Award. Even though he improved in efficiency and output, Dedric still felt the same doubts about his game. He's only putting up numbers because he's playing in the American, his critics would say. And after missing the NCAA tournament for another season, he and his brother chose to transfer.
That summer, a Snapchat video circulated showing K.J. shouting, "Fuck Tubby!" For his part, Dedric said the decision to leave wasn't easy but also that it wasn't personal. "It was fun playing at Memphis," he said. "My dad was on staff and my brother was on the team, and my mom always came to games with my little brothers. ... But there was a coaching change, and it was different. I wanted to make the tournament and try to win a national championship."
The brothers had no shortage of suitors on the transfer market, but they eventually chose between playing for Pastner again at Georgia Tech and trying something new with Bill Self at Kansas. "It really wasn't a hard pitch with them," Self said. "When you think of Dedric, you throw K.J. in there, too, because they weren't entertaining options where they both couldn't come. We weren't in on their first recruitment (in high school), and there were a lot of rumors about the mom and the dad, and questions about: 'Does the dad want a job?' There was none of that. None. They were probably—I don't want to use the word easy, but they were low-maintenance to convince them this was the best spot."
In his transfer year, Dedric transformed his body. He'd weighed as much as 248 pounds at Memphis, but he trimmed down to 230 by cutting fried foods and sugary drinks (Chick-fil-A and lemonade were the hardest to quit) and committing to a rigorous training program. He battled against big men Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot in practice all year, but he also stayed behind in the gym to steady his three-point stroke.
And when March arrived, Lawson got a taste of what he'd come to Kansas for—the NCAA tournament. When the Jayhawks landed in San Antonio for the Final Four and were greeted by the band playing the team's fight song on the runway, Lawson vowed that he'd guide them back this season—only this time, it would be his team. "It was bittersweet going to the Final Four," he said. "Against Villanova [which beat the Jayhawks 95-79 in the national semifinals], I think I could have helped out a little bit and given us a better chance to win. This year I want to say that I did help us win. I want to help us get back to the Final Four."
There has been only one challenge this year that Lawson didn't feel he was fit to face—contrast bath therapy. After games, Lawson plunges into an ice bath for five minutes. Then he shivers out and dives into a hot tub for another five minutes. He repeats the brutal baptism twice more before he hops out and starts the long process toward feeling his limbs again. "Let's just say," he said, "it stings."
In the preseason, no one could have predicted that Lawson would have to withstand the kind of workload he carries now. Self's main preseason problem was figuring out how to "play small when we play big," as he described it. "And it's Dedric who allows you to do that. When you play two guys close to the basket, it can make for a crowded house with not enough driving lanes. But Dedric is bright enough and understands the game well enough that you can plug him in as your 1, 2, 3 or 4 on the perimeter, and still give Udoka space underneath."
The early results were promising. Kansas knocked off top-10 teams Michigan State and Tennessee on the road, and beat defending national champion Villanova at home. But absent Azubuike, the Jayhawks fell at Arizona State and then embarked on the always-brutal Big 12 slate. "Every team's game plan became: How do we stop Dedric," Howard said. "They wanted to be physical with him, and they wanted to push him. But mentally and physically he measured up. ... I think he means more to us than any other player means to any other team."
As injuries, inquiries and inexperience eroded the Jayhawks rotation, the coaches began pushing Lawson out to the perimeter. The move helped stop defenses from trapping him in the post, and it allowed Lawson to show off his downhill driving ability, ball-handling skills and point-guard-esque vision. "Passing may be the best thing he does," Howard said. "He's got the vision of a point guard. When you talk about him in the NBA, I think he'll have a chance to make it and play for a long time because of his skill level. He's showing that now."
Lawson will still face plenty of traps on the path to the NBA. There's no question he is an elite college player, but he lacks game-changing athleticism and a natural position at the next level. Scouts don't think he'll be quick enough to defend NBA wings, and they wonder if he'll be able to battle with 4s in the paint. Still, he'll almost certainly get a shot to prove he can produce in the NBA Summer League. When asked about his individual achievements, the normally loquacious Lawson went quiet. He did admit he was happy to remind everyone about the kind of basketball player he was this year. And he believes his seamless transition from Memphis to Kansas is further proof that he'll be able to make it as a pro, too.
"There's no doubt I proved the doubters wrong," he said. "A lot of people said that playing at Memphis is not the same as playing at a Power 5 conference. I came to a Power 5 conference and did the same thing I've always done. I'm proud of myself, and the way I played individually, but we fell short of the team goals. Now what I want most is to win out."
Kansas was statistically eliminated from the Big 12 regular-season championship chase in a loss at Oklahoma in early March. Lawson took out his frustration on the Baylor Bears in Kansas' regular-season finale, scoring 23 points on 14 shots and picking up 14 rebounds. But rather than congratulate Lawson on another stellar performance, Self told his star that he could have scored 30. Lawson looked his coach back in the eye and accepted the challenge. Even after a season of doing everything for the Jayhawks, Dedric Lawson still wants more.