Keelon Lawson hasn’t coached organized basketball since he left the Memphis Tigers, for whom he was most recently director of player development under Tubby Smith during the 2016-17 season. But he’s enjoying his summer with the Bluff City Legends, his AAU squad stacked with second- through eighth-graders.
As the father of four talented sons who could all make an impact at the high school and collegiate levels next season, Lawson might be the game’s most significant patriarch.
K.J. Lawson, a 6-foot-8 combo forward, and Dedric Lawson, a 6-9 forward, could lead Kansas to the Final Four in Minneapolis next year. The duo combined to average 31.5 points and 18 rebounds per game for Memphis in 2016-17 before they joined the Jayhawks last summer.
Chandler Lawson is a 6-8 forward ranked 47th overall in the 2019 class by ESPN. He has offers from Georgia Tech, Florida, Kansas, Memphis and other top programs. Johnathan Lawson, perhaps the most gifted player in the family, is a 6-6 forward ranked 14th in the 2021 class by ESPN.
New Memphis coach Penny Hardaway, who coached Chandler at Memphis East High School and has known the Lawson family for more than 20 years, would like to keep the boys in town, but they have a multitude of Division I suitors and a rocky history with the Tigers after their father left Smith’s staff a year ago.
With so much talent in one family, Keelon, who coached Hamilton High School in Memphis to a perfect record and a state title in 2006, expects to be compared to the game’s most notorious father: LaVar Ball. But he says they’re nothing alike.
“Here’s what I tell people: I wasn’t like that with my older boys, and our boys are about the same age, I believe,” Keelon said. “There’s nothing wrong with what he’s doing, but it’s the market. We’re not in L.A. We’re in Memphis, Tennessee.”
But Keelon’s influence stretches far beyond city limits.
Kansas should enter next season as a top-three team in every reputable poll despite losing every key guard from last season’s roster. Why? The Lawson brothers and a top recruiting class have elevated expectations in Lawrence.
K.J. and Dedric could lead Kansas to its 15th consecutive Big 12 title and first national championship under Bill Self since 2008.
“I’m really just focused on knocking down the 3-ball consistently, getting stronger and coming out a whole different player and being a main leader,” K.J. said about his prep for next season. “One thing, for sure, at a Kansas practice is you’re either gonna get embarrassed or you’re gonna show up. I want to give [my teammates] the best shot to go to the Final Four.”
Added Dedric: “I’ve been trying to get my body right and working on my outside shot, sharpening my inside tools. I have [Kansas assistant Kurtis Townsend] and I’m doing things the guards are doing. I’ve been locked in. I think it’s a very big year. People want to know how I’ll transition to a big conference like the Big 12.”
Their father said multiple schools coveted the elite forwards individually when they announced they would transfer from Memphis, but Self’s offer to take both players was too good to pass up.
“It’s the right place because it’s a blue-blood school,” Keelon said.
Their transition began with controversy. Shortly after he announced his decision to leave Memphis, K.J. was seen yelling “F— Tubby!” in a friend’s Snapchat video. He’d previously tweeted “two middle fingers as I make a exit,” Drake lyrics that many assumed conveyed his feelings on Smith and his program.
K.J. later tweeted an apology “for my inexcusable behavior.” Last summer, Dedric missed an exhibition trip to Italy after he was suspended for an altercation in practice. But Self said both brothers have been positive contributors to the program since last summer’s incidents.
Dedric said he’s matured and learned to handle similar situations in a professional manner under Self.
With the brothers in the mix, Kansas now boasts size and depth in the frontcourt that few teams can match. Self said that having Dedric, with his versatility, will allow him to play through the post and diversify his offense. He said that K.J. will add athleticism and mismatch challenges for any opponent.
“K.J., he’s just a big guard,” Self said. “I look at him as a guard that would be a guy like we played [Josh Jackson]. He’s an intangible guard. He really understands the game. Dedric, on the other hand, is different. Without question, he’s our best passer. He’s a low-post player with guard skills. We’ll play big. It allows you to space the floor at all times, invert the floor, like Villanova did. The biggest thing is you can run your offense through your bigs.”
Both K.J. and Dedric will tell you their younger brothers could surpass them once they reach college. They can see their brothers’ growth whenever they travel back to Memphis and watch them progress.
A few weeks ago, K.J. and Dedric went home and played a fiery game of 2-on-2 with their younger brothers. It’s always Chandler and Dedric against K.J. and Johnathan.
“Me and Johnathan beat Dedric and Chandler,” K.J. said. “We’re more of the killers in the family.”
Chandler is smooth, laid-back and patient, Dedric and K.J. both say.
“Chandler has really come into his own as a unique player,” Dedric said.
Johnathan is always ready to attack.
“Some people may think he plays with attitude,” Keelon Lawson said. “He plays with passion.”
Self said he wanted K.J. and Dedric because he recognized their talent and their potential. Dedric was an All-American Athletic Conference first-teamer in 2017. K.J. made the rookie team.
Self said he didn’t recruit the tandem because of their ties to other potential players. It’s no secret, however, he hopes to land the younger Lawsons and any other top players from their hometown who might want to join them.
The Lawson family is close to Memphis prep phenom James Wiseman, the No. 1 player in the 2019 class, and some speculate Wiseman and Chandler, who both played for Hardaway at Memphis East High School last season, could go to the same college as part of a package deal.
Self said he’ll accept any “unintended consequence” of K.J.’s and Dedric’s arrivals. “You realize the family is obviously very well-connected in Memphis,” Self said about the Lawsons.
Keelon said a good year for K.J. and Dedric at Kansas will “most definitely” help Self’s pursuit of their younger brothers. Overall, however, the younger Lawsons just want a good coach.
“They just want an opportunity to play and a coach to just be fair,” he said. “I think most coaches are coming in like that. A lot of it, most of it, will be on them being ready to play as freshmen.”
A few years ago, the Lawson family seemed positioned to leave a permanent mark on Memphis, both the city and the university.
Josh Pastner added Keelon to his staff in 2014. The commitments of both K.J. and Dedric soon followed. When Pastner left for Georgia Tech in 2016 — the school paid $1.25 million to encourage his departure — Keelon said he had an offer to join him in Atlanta. Instead, he stayed at Memphis and joined Tubby Smith’s staff.
And this is where the story takes a turn.
Keelon said athletic director Tom Bowen promised him that he would keep his assistant gig regardless of whom the school hired. Instead, Smith made his son, Saul Smith, an assistant and demoted Keelon to director of player development, a position he created. Both K.J. and Dedric transferred after the season and their father resigned, the beginning of a mass exodus of players who transferred to other programs. Smith struggled without the Lawsons and was fired after the 2017-18 season.
Keelon said he never took the demotion personally, but he also admitted that the program left a scar that could complicate Hardaway’s pursuit of Chandler and K.J.
Keelon said he’s not sure his younger boys will participate in Hardaway’s rebuilding effort because he doesn’t trust the school’s leadership. But an apology would help heal the wound, he said.
“The boys are open-minded,” he said. “My wife, she’s real bitter and big about Memphis dropping the ball on the whole situation with us, and Coach Smith and [the Memphis administration] making it seem like we were going after each other. I told Penny that.”
And that’s why Keelon is the most influential man in college basketball right now.
His older boys could make Kansas a national champion in 2018-19. Chandler’s commitment will help any program that gains the services of the elite talent. And Johnathan is evolving into a future star, capable of anchoring any program’s recruiting class.
His family could help Hardaway rebuild Memphis basketball, or his sons could pick another premier program since the wound is still fresh.
With all of this attention on his family, Keelon could exploit it. He could command airtime and conduct daily interviews. He could make himself the story, just as Ball has over the last year. But that’s not his style.
Keelon said he feels lucky to have this talented crew. And he’s ready to watch his sons shine, not take their spotlight.
“As far as bringing unwanted attention on my sons, I’m not going to do that,” he said. “There’s enough pressure on them already.”
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