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South Carolina-Michigan basketball: Clash of Canada’s best

Since conference expansion has yet to cross international borders, South Carolina’s Saturday matchup with Michigan will have to serve as A.J. Lawson’s homecoming game.

David Cooper, Lawson’s former coach at GTA Prep in Ontario, will be among several friends and family members in attendance at the Crisler Center as the Gamecocks (4-3) will try to stun the No. 5 Wolverines (9-0). It’s five-hour drive from Lawson’s home base in Canada to Ann Arbor. The freshman guard is sure to spot familiar faces in the crowd, but also on the opposing team.

Both USC and UM are led in scoring by rookies from the north. Toronto’s Lawson is averaging just under 15 points per game for the Gamecocks. Oakville, Ontario’s Ignas Brazdeikis is at 17 a contest for the Wolverines.

“They didn’t play each other in high school,” Cooper said. “But they played against each other all the time just growing up in the circuit, training with one another and things like that.”

The two are among the top 100 prospects for the 2019 NBA Draft, according to Sam Vecenie’s “Big Board” published to The Athletic on Wednesday afternoon. Fellow Canadians on the list include No. 2 R.J. Barrett (Duke), No. 28 Nickeil Alexander-Walker (Virginia Tech), No. 31 Simi Shittu (Vanderbilt) and No. 94 Oshae Brissett (Syracuse).

Lawson, a 6-foot-7 guard, is No. 49 on the list. Brazdeikis, a 6-7 forward, is No. 50.

“Iron sharpens iron and that’s what they’re doing right now,” said Elias Sbiet, a Canadian recruiting analyst for “I think they both went to levels that are good for their development. Hopefully they’ll match up against each other because it would be a cool one for sure. I think iron will continue to sharpen iron in that stance as well.

“These guys are super motivated, have always had a good head on their shoulders. We’ve considered them NBA prospects for a few years. These are guys that are representing the next wave of Canadian basketball. And I think a big part of it is the growth of the prep scene out here.”

Carolina coach Frank Martin is no stranger to Canada. He first scouted the country when he was an assistant at Northeastern in the early 2000s. While at USC, he’s landed Toronto’s Duane Notice and Lawson. One was the 2016 SEC Sixth Man of the Year and a key cog on a Final Four team and the other’s already earned one SEC Freshman of the Week honor.

“It’s no different than going into New York City, Chicago,” Martin said of recruiting Toronto. “It’s the same deal. They’re competitive, they know the game. They got pride.

“When I say they have pride, I’m not trying to say other people don’t have pride. They have pride for what that game means to them. Some people play basketball because it’s what you do in the winter, but they don’t fight for the game. Those kids in Toronto, they got pride for the game. They fight for the game.

“That’s the same way as kids from Chicago or New York City.”

Cooper, who’s been in charge at GTA Prep since 2016, was born in the Virgin Islands and has lived in Florida and New Hampshire. He played college ball at James Madison in Virginia.

“I think what makes the circuit so different is that the rules in Canada are different than they are in the U.S.,” Cooper said. “Guys are able to train more year round. Their structure and development is somewhat of a European approach, get the best of both worlds, in terms of the club really pushing and promoting the marketing side of things and pushing the professionalism of the club teams.

“They’re training these guys from early on.”

Lawson first stood out to Sbiet as a 10th grader. Lawson was a long, lanky scorer who had Sbiet seeing Tracy McGrady.

“He was handling the rock, he was creating off the dribble,” Sbiet said. “I think he was a very long point point guard who could have success. Couple years later, that’s what we got.”

For which Sbiet tips his hat to Cooper.

“Coach (Cooper) is a big piece of A.J. Lawson’s development,” he said. “He helped him evolve his guard game, he helped him build his 3-point shot throughout the summer and it’s starting to show now. You’re seeing him improve his 3-point shooting, although it does need work. He’s definitely been improving and Coach has been a big part of that process.”

USC was recruiting another GTA Prep player (center Kaosi Ezeagu, an eventual UTEP signee) when it discovered Lawson. During a trip to Florida for a tournament last fall, Cooper reached out to Carolina assistant Chuck Martin to let him know they’d be driving through Columbia.

It was 11 p.m., but Martin got out of bed to meet the team and unlock a few doors.

“He showed us the school, the campus, the best he could at 11:30,” Cooper said. “He was so warm and welcoming with all the kids, took pictures, toured the facility. A.J. really liked it. It really resonated with him.”

Lawson, after reclassifying, committed to the Gamecocks in June. It all comes full circle Saturday.

“We’re excited to see him play,” Cooper said. “I think how Frank’s using him now, in terms of having the ball in his hands and allowing him to make decisions, I think it’s phenomenal. That’s exactly what we were looking for with A.J.

“I talked to some NBA teams about him and they’re excited about what he has to offer because of those intangibles.”

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