From his high school days in Canada to his college days at South Carolina — and on to the NBA — being overlooked has usually been a way of life for Lawson. But he doesn’t mind it at all.
“I feel like the underdog in me always came out since high school, because I feel like I was always overlooked,” Lawson told Mavs.com. “And in college, I felt like when the awards came out during the end of the season after people skipped me, I always had the underdog feeling.
“So, when I didn’t get drafted, it was more like a motivation than like sadness or anything like that. Just like right now, I’m in the gym right now and I always think about that in the back of my mind. That’s what makes me keeps going every day. So, I use that as motivation.”
After spending three seasons at South Carolina with a career average of 14.2 points, Lawson went undrafted in the 2021 NBA Draft. That set him on a journey where he played on summer league teams with the Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks, and in the G League with the Texas Legends, Iowa Wolves and College Park Skyhawks.
Lawson also signed a pair of two-way contracts with the Minnesota Timberwolves — and a two-way contract with the Mavs this past Dec. 26. In addition, there was a stop playing for the Guelph Nighthawks of the Canadian Elite Basketball League, with all of this coming in a span of less than two years.
“It’s been a journey for sure,” Lawson said. “There’s been ups and downs in my journey, but I’m glad I’m here.
On Wednesday, Lawson spent time talking to and playing basketball with the nearly 300 campers at the Mavs Academy Hoop Camp in both Keller and Richardson. It was one of those good times had by all kind of day for Lawson, who is a 6-6, 179-pound shooting guard.
“So far this summer I’ve been here in Dallas training with the Mavs’ staff and working on gaining weight,” Lawson said. “I’ve been working on my shot to get it consistent, and also I’ve been working with (player development coach God) Shammgod on my ball-handling. I’ve been trying to get my decision-making and my ball-handling skills all streaming together.”
Lawson averaged 3.9 points in 7.6 minutes while playing 14 games for the Mavs this season. But while playing 23 minutes in each of the last two games of the season, he tallied 12 points and grabbed six rebounds and made 5-of-9 baskets against Chicago, and added 10 points and five boards and converted 4-of-9 shots against San Antonio.
“The last two games of the season I got to play significantly more, and it was a blessing,” Lawson said. “The fans got to see what I can do.
“They know I can shoot and they know I’ve got athleticism because they saw the put-back dunks and the transition dunks. Every time I go on the court I just want to be the best A. J. Lawson I can be, and play with all heart and energy, and that’s what the team needs.”
Lawson was born in Toronto and raised in Brampton, Ontario, where he was named a first-team All-Star in the National Preparatory Association after guiding his team to a second-place finish in the championship game. He also was selected to the Southeastern Conference All-Freshman team in 2019, and was chosen second-team all-SEC in 2021.
Lawson loves to talk about the influx of Canadian-born players who have gradually made their way onto an NBA roster. That includes Dwight Powell, Jamal Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Andrew Wiggins Dillon Brooks, Luguentz Dort, RJ Barrett, Kelly Olynyk, Brandon Clarke, Trey Lyles, Tristan Thompson, Chris Boucher and Cory Joseph, in addition to former Mavs point guard Steve Nash, who won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award in 2005 and ’06.
“The Canadian pipeline runs deep now,” Lawson said. “Basketball is there in hockey country. The city (of Toronto) loves basketball so much, especially with the (2019 NBA champion) Raptors and the G League.
“Now that players are coming out of Canada, it’s really energizing the whole basketball culture right now in Canada.”
In addition, this past winter Lawson debuted with Canada’s senior men’s national team in the first round of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 Americas Qualifiers.
“The last time I played with Team Canada was last December,” Lawson said. “We went to the Dominican Republic and went 2-0. That was good for me to see the competition of other pros overseas.”
It also had Lawson believing Team Canada could make a strong run for the gold medal in the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
“The way that we played as a team – Team Canada – we have a shot to go really far in these upcoming games for sure,” he said. “With the Canadian talent that we have right now, why not? I think we can get gold for sure.
“The older guys paved the way for Canada. Jamal Murray, Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Tristan Thompson, Steve Nash — they paved the way for us. So we’ve got to keep paving the way for the younger guys, and that’s what I’m trying to do right now. I took something from all of them in a sense, because I feel like us Canadian guys have to stick together and look out for each other.”
Thus, it comes as no surprise that when Game 1 of the NBA Finals is played on Thursday, Lawson will be heavily rooting for Murray and the Denver Nuggets to defeat the Miami Heat.
“I’m going to support my Canadian brother in Jamal Murray,” he said. “Jamal Murray is one of those guys who just plays so hard and his game just speaks for itself.
“I saw him actually in the gym (in Canada) one time working out and shooting free throws and drilling shots. He’s a worker. I’m not surprised at all of his success, because if you put the work in it’s going to show eventually.”
“I just want to show that all this work that I put in, it has been working,” Lawson said. “I want to show that I’ve gotten stronger, and I’m defending players and I’m driving to the basket and finishing. I want to show that I’m consistent.
“I want to play every game the same way regardless of my energy. This is going to be my third year in the league, so you know I’ve got to be a leader to the young guys.”
Lawson also wants to continue in his seemingly life-long role of being an underdog.