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A.J. Lawson is trying to prove he belongs

The 23-year-old wing is looking to leverage his two-way deal into something more

Dallas Mavericks Media Day Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images

The Dallas Mavericks had a hectic, productive offseason. With the whirlwind of transactions and roster turnover we saw over the summer, it’s easy to understand how some players on the margins may have fallen through the cracks. If a casual MFFL hears the name “A.J. Lawson,” their first thought might be: “Oh, that guy’s still on the team?” And he is! Lawson is entering the final year of a two-year contract; he will occupy one of the Mavericks' two-way slots for a second consecutive season.

The 6’6” Lawson was a summer league standout for Dallas in 2022, and the Mavericks broke the hearts of millions when the team chose not to offer him a two-way spot. The Minnesota Timberwolves snatched him up instead, signing him to a two-way themselves. After appearing in one game for Minnesota, Lawson was waived in early December. He played in the G-League, signed another deal with the Wolves, and was waived a second time. After this up-and-down ordeal, the prodigal son finally made his way back to where it all began in Big D.

Splitting time between the Mavericks and Texas Legends, Lawson appeared in 14 games for Dallas, averaging 3.9 points on .488/.400/.250 splits. Although he didn’t have a ton of opportunities, Lawson showcased glimpses of athleticism, defensive potential, and solid three-point shooting. With the Mavericks in full tank mode to finish the season, Lawson closed out his 2022-2023 campaign with back-to-back games in double figures. After a solid (if unspectacular) 2023 Summer League showing, Lawson is back on the fringes of the roster. There’s enough potential to dream on, even if the likelihood of Lawson becoming a rotation contributor is minimal.

Big Question

The biggest question with Lawson is simply: “Can he hit threes at an above-average clip?” His stroke looks pretty solid, and the numbers were good last year in a small sample (10-25 from distance). Lawson has good athleticism and competes hard on the defensive end. He’s a smart off-ball cutter and generally plays hard. But, given the rest of his offensive limitations, he needs to be a plus shooter if he’s going to stick in the NBA. Right now, we don’t have nearly enough evidence at the NBA level to tell if he’s capable of that.

Best Case Scenario

Ideally, Lawson shows major improvement with his jumper and continues to impress on defense. Though he’s on the edge of the roster, you can never have too many wings in the NBA; Lawson could provide depth at a crucial position. There’s a universe where the shooting is real and another year of overall development puts Lawson ahead of the Derrick Jones Jr.’s and Dante Exum’s of the world. For Lawson, the best-case scenario is proving to the NBA that he’s better than a two-way deal.

Worst Case Scenario

The stakes with guys like Lawson are pretty low. Worst case, Lawson proves to be just a guy. The shooting remains a question mark at best, his feel for the game doesn’t improve, and he can’t crack the rotation, even in garbage time. He bounces back and forth between the Legends and Mavericks before finally being waived, free to seek out another opportunity. If everything goes south for Lawson, he could end up playing overseas before year’s end.

Season goal

The goal for the Mavericks should be to do something they’ve never done before: turn someone into a two-way success story. Since the onset of the two-way contract, Dallas has gotten very little in the way of production from the guys they hand these deals to. They’ve used these roster sports for failed free-agent recruitment (Kostas Antetokounmpo) and cheerleading (Theo Pinson) but never for real, genuine player development.

Seriously, go back and look at all the players who occupied two-way slots for the Mavericks. Antetokounmpo probably had the best NBA career, simply by virtue of playing in five games for the 2020 NBA champion Lakers. But teams can find good NBA players on these deals. Alex Caruso, Lu Dort, Monte Morris, Duncan Robinson, Naz Reid, and Chirs Boucher were all once two-way guys. A.J. Lawson represents the best chance for Dallas to find their own diamond in the rough.

Overall

The odds of A.J. Lawson breaking out and turning into a real NBA rotation piece this year are low. When you look at the history of players on two-way contracts (especially the Mavericks' record in that area), the numbers just aren’t in his favor. But Lawson does possess NBA skills. He has the NBA frame, the NBA athleticism, and the NBA motor. Like so many other scrappy, young wings, shooting will be what makes or breaks him.

Lawson is just 23 years old. He’s far from a finished product. But the clock is ticking, and if he doesn’t stick this year, the road to an NBA role is a murky one. Hopefully, he and the Mavericks can defy the odds and help each other succeed.