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Hello everyone, and welcome back to SP Sports Weekly, your weekly roundup of State Press sports content. Alongside Jeffrey Horst, I am Alex Coil, and we are the sports editors at The State Press.
Joining us now on the show is State Press Sports staff writer Carson Breber to talk about his latest piece on ASU men’s basketball senior forward Kimani Lawrence and his mental shift that helped him become a more versatile player in his final year. Thank you for coming on the show, Carson.
Yeah, thank you so much for having me guys.
Let’s get started with one of the primary points that came up in this piece, and that was Lawrence’s acceptance of a role that involved doing a lot of the little things, a lot of the hustle plays, rebounding and defending people much bigger than him.
Coach Bobby Hurley, at the beginning of the season, almost openly questioned the team about who was going to do those things. So I wanted to ask, how did Lawrence come about realizing that role?
I think it’s really interesting because when coach Hurley was sort of making those points about “Who is going to be our Mickey Mitchell?” was the example that he used, that guy who is just going to go out and get loose balls and grind on the glass and all of those things, Kimani wasn’t actually available at that time because he was coming off of a knee surgery.
So the way that he put it to me was basically, when he was sidelined for the team’s first couple of games, he noticed that they were missing that presence and that that was a void he kind of needed to fill. And although maybe he had done some of that previously, really on a team that was relatively shallow on quote-unquote big men — maybe that’s not Kimani, what he was initially billed at, but that’s kind of what he became in this ASU system, basically playing the four the majority of the time — he sort of saw that as the area that he had to step up, and then obviously did end up doing that. Along with, I would say, a guy like Chris Osten, sort of supplementing that value that, as you mentioned, coach Hurley kind of said that they needed to step up and fill.
The headline of the article talks about the mental shift that really clicked. And a lot of times — I’m going to specifically talk about rebounding here — a lot of times, rebounding is a mentality thing, it’s an effort thing. How much did the mentality shift really improve his rebounding to where he had a 20-20 game this year?
One of the things that I asked Kimani when I was talking with him was I said a lot of people will say that rebounding is really just who wants the ball more, and do you feel that’s kind of what is true and that you were able to make that adjustment by just having that shift in mentality? He said yeah, that it was something that was drilled in in practice, something that he prioritized. And obviously, you mentioned the 20-rebound game, before that one, associate head coach Rashon Burno at the time said, “I need you to go out there and get 20 rebounds,” because they were so shallow on big men in that game, and then Kimani went out and did it.
I think that, again, you see sort of just the willpower there and maybe one of several mental shifts that he made in his game to sort of increase his productivity throughout the year.
And as the story mentions, he wasn’t super quick to come around and accept this. He mentioned that he had quote “dark times” in his career and, in a way, judged his play purely off of whether or not he was a good enough scorer as a player. Was that the only thing that pushed him to say that he had dark times, or were there other things that kind of clouded his judgment of his ability to play basketball?
I think one of the really interesting things about Kimani and his evolution, really becoming the most productive version of himself as a senior and being that sort of gadget, do-it-all guy that he ultimately became for this team is, the expectation was kind of that he would be a star-type player. He came into ASU as a top 60 guy in the country. He is, to this day, a top 10 recruit in ASU basketball of this century.
And so when you come in with those expectations, he was not expected to be in the role that he ended up being in, and I think that the dark times sort of come from maybe underachieving the expectations as far as the raw scoring production like you said, being hard on himself when those shots weren’t falling.
Also, I think just the fact that he did have some injury stuff throughout his college career, he wasn’t always available, and I would just say generally he didn’t feel like he maximized his potential. So I think it was a number of those things, results-based. And then also, just the way that he looked at himself, getting so down on himself. Coach Burno described him as such an exceptional competitor, but on the flip side of that is that being hard on yourself, it could ultimately hurt you more than it helps.
In the story, you use a couple of really good quotes from Burno referencing that Lawrence needed to get out of his head, as you just mentioned, and not live and die with the result. And then he also, Burno that is, had a really good quote that I think is applicable to really anything in life, not just basketball, or anything: "If you took a good rep — If (the shot) goes in, life doesn't stop, and if it doesn't go in, life doesn't stop. Play the next play.”
How much do you think Kimani took that, or even just anybody on that team, took that to really change the game, especially with Kimani?
One of the things that Kimani talked about as being so liberating for him was just taking that pressure off of himself. And with that is, of course, not solely prioritizing your scoring, but just generally, not living with that results-based mentality, where, as coach Burno said, you can do something well, and maybe the shot doesn’t fall, but that doesn’t mean that you didn’t do it well, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have value as a basketball player.
What Kimani said is basically, “This is what I’ve been doing my whole life. I am privileged to get to play basketball and do something I love. And I just sort of need to find that youthful joy again.” And then ultimately, that is what he ended up doing, I think.
I think that was tremendously important for him, because I don’t know that he would have been able to make the shift that he did if he had resisted that part of the mindset. And it’s definitely something that coach Burno said he was still struggling with throughout the season, still trying to not get down on himself, not to live with that results-oriented mentality. But you progress there, and ultimately, I think that it helped him a lot.
You touched on the fact that Lawrence came in as one of the top recruits in ASU men’s basketball history. He still is to this day. He came alongside Remy Martin, of course, who is now one of the most decorated players in the program’s history. What is Bobby Hurley’s and Burno’s appreciation of Lawrence and what he provided throughout his years at ASU given the fact that he was one of the first really strong recruits that Bobby Hurley ever recruited?
I think that Hurley referred to it as basically an incredible success story, and I think that, again, you can focus on how maybe his first few years he underachieved relative to expectations as that prominent recruit. Or you can dial into the fact that he did make this evolution in his game and embrace that Swiss-Army knife, do-whatever-it-takes-to-win mentality.
I think that there is eternal appreciation in guys who will go out there and do that because they are not easy to find. And one of the other things that coach Burno said is so many young players feel like they need to extract their value purely from scoring. And scoring is obviously far from the only thing that is conducive to winning basketball, and particularly on a team like this year’s ASU squad that was so gifted and littered with talented one-on-one creators — they didn’t need more of that.
They needed a guy who would be physical inside, who would play hard on defense, who would move without the ball, who would cut to the bucket, and that is everything that Kimani provided.
Although the team wasn’t able to live up to its maximum potential, if you were to say before the season that down the stretch of this year, Kimani Lawrence is going to be the second-most productive player for ASU and is gonna do all of these little things that don’t even show up on the stat sheet on top of that, I think a lot of people would have been surprised, save maybe coach Hurley and coach Burno, who did have this confidence with him throughout. But I think that they have immense appreciation for what he was able to do, particularly in the midst of this season.
With so much uncertainty, and COVID complications, and injuries and everything that went wrong for this ASU team, he was a guy who consistently played up to his maximum potential and did it in a way that was unselfish and malleable. And I think that's just what coaches look for.
Again, what we have talked about already: He came in with these high expectations. He didn’t necessarily meet those until this year — he really performed very well. It seems to be that it is the end of his ASU career, although that is not official yet. He does have that one extra year of potential eligibility. Where does his career stand, whether it’s going pro, whether it’s going off and doing something in the quote-unquote real world, or is it another year here at ASU?
Personally, I’m not sure. I think that it seems unlikely that he will return to ASU.
It seemed like he has sort of come to terms with, this is how I’m going out, playing his best basketball in a lot of ways, which is one of the things he talked about being such a positive for him, having gone through, as Jeffrey mentioned, some of those quote-unquote tough times. But I think that he leaves a legacy of a guy who got better throughout his career.
He ends his senior year averaging better than eight points per game and down the stretch was up closer to 14 points and eight boards over the team’s last 10 or so games on considerably improved efficiency from years prior. So regardless of what he does next, which again I’m not sure about, I think that he leaves his ASU basketball career having played his best in the final moments.
Thank you so much Carson for joining us on this week’s show to talk about your piece on Kimani Lawrence.
Yeah of course! Thank you again for having me guys, it was a lot of fun.
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Jeffrey Horst is the digital editor-in-chief of The State Press. He previously served as the publication's sports editor and worked at Cronkite News and ArizonaSports.com.