Devonté Graham pulled Dedric Lawson to the side, knowing it was important to say something in the moment.
This was at last year’s boot camp — Kansas basketball’s preseason conditioning workouts — and Graham could already start to see the future.
The point guard, over four years, had become KU’s unquestioned leader. Someone else, though, was going to have to take that role after his graduation.
“Next year,” Graham told Lawson then, “you’re going to have to lead boot camp.”
These lessons continued the rest of the season.
Lawson, who wasn’t eligible because of transfer rules, would hear from Graham frequently in practices. “Coach will want this from you next year.” Or, “Be sure to know to tell the guys this.”
Graham was preparing his understudy while also relaying an underlying truth: The best candidate to lead on the 2018-19 KU basketball team was going to be Lawson.
“Coach really wants me to be a leader. He talks about being a leader,” Lawson said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys this year, so falling into that leadership role is something that was passed down.”
It’s not a perfect fit. Ideally, the role would go to someone with years in the program with extensive knowledge of coach Bill Self’s likes and dislikes.
But the personalities don’t match up. Lagerald Vick and Udoka Azubuike, two of the team’s most experienced players, are quiet by nature. And talented freshmen like Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson are just now starting to understand what’s expected of them.
This all leaves Lawson with an added responsibility, and one that might not have previously been expected of a player who has the nickname “Smoove” because of his laid-back persona.
“I don’t mind voicing my opinion,” Lawson said. “So if I’ve got to be that (vocal) guy, I don’t mind.”
Perhaps more importantly, Lawson has taken action to be a team role model during his sit-out season in Lawrence.
That started with taking better care of his body. In January, Lawson ballooned to 248 pounds, saying the weight increase resulted in added knee pain.
It was the start of him taking his craft more seriously. Lawson watched interviews with NBA players like LeBron James saying they put extra emphasis on their diets to help performance. So why, Lawson thought to himself, shouldn’t he do the same thing?
He cut out red meat, fried foods and takeout meals. Steaks and hamburgers were replaced by turkey burgers.
The changes helped him drop 20 pounds in about three weeks, and since then, he’s been able to maintain his weight between 228 and 230.
“It helped me a lot,” Lawson said. “I feel like I have more energy now.”
Lawson understands he has to be ready to produce right away. He is the overwhelming media choice for preseason Big 12 player of the year, with Self raving about his skillset in numerous quotes over the offseason.
Most times, Lawson said he was alerted to the positive feedback through friends over text or social media. That knowledge, though, didn’t change his personal circumstances.
“I just look at it and I keep going, because the next day of practice, he’s back on me, ‘You’re not doing this right,’” Lawson said. “You can’t really pay attention to media and things. You’ve just got to keep working.
“To give me such praise, you know he’s going to be on me just as much behind closed doors.”
Lawson thinks it’s helped. Just last week, he believed he had taken a step forward when it came to defending ball screens, hedging and recovering to his man better than he had at any point last season.
Self, for his part, isn’t walking back expectations for Lawson, saying he will play a vital role for KU offensively.
“What Dedric’s got to do is he needs to be able to play everywhere for us,” Self said. “There’s times where he can be our best point guard. I think there are times he could be our best low-post scorer, so we’ve got to move him around and come up with some creative ways to do that.”
Lawson also will have to continue to show he’s learned from a practice altercation with teammate Mitch Lightfoot last year that led to Lawson being suspended for the team’s exhibition trip to Italy. He said during Wednesday’s media day that he’s grown since then.
“You just can’t take things personally at practice,” Lawson said. “You’ve just got to handle the situation better. Just be mature about things. Everything is not going to go your way. You can’t react to situations certain ways.
“I didn’t take it personally. I understand with actions come consequences. I just took it like that and kept going.”
The focus now is always setting a good example. That means not taking plays off in practice and becoming a better listener. Or stepping in to help when freshmen like Dotson, Grimes or David McCormack have questions.
“College is different than high school,” Lawson said. “You do what you want during high school. You’re the best player on the team. Now you’ve got 11, 12 guys on the same level as you. You’ve got to learn your role and learn your niche to fit in what’s best for the team.”
Lawson, with continued help from Graham, is continuing to take on a new duty himself.
A few weeks back, the two were playing NBA 2K online together when the conversation turned to boot camp. Graham laughed while talking about how he wouldn’t have to participate, while Lawson thought back to Graham’s message a year ago.
Lawson — though not the fastest player on the team — did his best to follow through on what his former teammate had taught him.
“We’ve got some pretty quick players on that team. They led by leading,” Lawson said of this year’s boot camp, before breaking into a smile.
“But I led by cheering them on and picking them up when they got down.”