The mental shift that saved Kimani Lawrence's game

The senior men's basketball forward has played some of the best basketball of his career after refocusing on his versatile value over scoring

ASU men's basketball senior forward Kimani Lawrence has scored 20 points in a game twice this season and recorded 20 rebounds in one of those games. However, his favorite moment of the season was a game-clinching stop against Stanford, a game in which he made one shot. 

On a team ravaged by injuries and COVID-19, Lawrence has excelled by embracing an unselfish mentality and the increased confidence that has come with it. 

Lawrence entered ASU in 2017 as a top-60 recruit in the nation but has averaged just 6.4 points per game in his career, including just 4.9 as a junior. This season, he had scored in double digits only once through his first 14 games. 

Then, in the absence of freshmen Marcus Bagley and Josh Christopher, he flipped the switch. In eight games since then, Lawrence has averaged 14.1 points and eight rebounds per game, serving as a defensive centerpiece and much improved offensive weapon for the Sun Devils.

“It’s been an uphill battle for me over my years at ASU, as far as injuries and setbacks," Lawrence said. "It's a really good feeling to see things click the way they have been clicking as of late.”

But when the season began, Lawrence wasn't on the court at all. He missed a chunk of the offseason and ASU's first two games while recovering from knee surgery. In his time away, he noticed the team needed someone who can "bring physicality to the game and rebounding," Lawrence said. 

Associate head coach Rashon Burno said Lawrence, who head coach Bobby Hurley said in February is the team's best rotational defender, has delivered tremendous value in that role. 

"His intangibles are something that a good team needs," Burno said. "A guy that's unselfish. A guy that can play multiple positions and a guy that was willing to do whatever he needed to do to be on the floor and help them win."

Yet, it took time for Lawrence to fully embrace that value. He said he had "some dark times" mentally and previously judged his performance primarily on how many points he scored. 

"It was just mainly getting him to understand that, 'Hey, dude, you can play the game of basketball, and you are a multi-skilled player, value every part of your game.'" Burno said.

Burno also said he helped Lawrence "get out of his own head" by emphasizing "not living and dying on the result." 

"You know 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," Burno said. 

Lawrence agreed that "taking the pressure off" of himself has been fundamental to his success. 

"At the end of the day, it is just a game," Lawrence said. "There's a lot of people who have real-life problems, and I just get to come over here and play basketball every day and do something I love."

Beyond his mental shift, Lawrence has also demonstrated improved midrange shooting, which he attributed to Hurley’s emphasis on his potential there. Hurley also said a tweak Lawrence made to his shooting form "has unlocked his whole game" and has made him "a more confident player." 

Lawrence said he felt his growth as a scorer came naturally as needs arose on the team, while Hurley said Lawrence's off-ball movement helps him fit into the offense seamlessly. 

"Once (Bagley and Christopher) got out, more opportunities presented themselves, and I just took advantage," Lawrence said. "Didn’t try to force anything, just let the game come to me."

That mentality encapsulates how Lawrence has been able to sustain his defensive and rebounding value while also carrying a heavier scoring load. 

"I think he's just relaxed and being comfortable with who he is," Burno said. "A lot of times these kids, they get these preconceived notions that their only value is to shoot and do stuff on the offensive end. Kimani's a Swiss Army knife, and I think he's embracing that."

Despite his progress, Burno said Lawrence can still struggle to completely reject results-oriented thinking because of his fierce competitiveness. "He still fights it," Burno said. 

However, Lawrence has no qualms about embracing winning basketball.

"I just care about winning now," Lawrence said. "Whatever I can do to help the team win, that’s what I do.”

Along with the results, he said he has found a youthful joy in the game again as his senior season comes to a close.

“I've been doing this my whole life," Lawrence said. "There's nothing different (about) me playing now than me playing 10 years ago. Just have fun.”


Reach the reporter at cbreber@asu.edu and follow @carsobi on Twitter.

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