K.J. Lawson sat in front of his locker on March 22, laughing when recalling the first time he arrived on Kansas’ campus after transferring from Memphis two years ago.
“It wasn’t the city like I was used to — the city speed,” Lawson said. “I came in the summer, and nobody’s here. There isn’t too much you can do.”
Lawson shook his head before admitting the truth: It was the best thing for him. The slower lifestyle resulted in more thinking, which led to further reflection.
And all of that led to a different man emerging from the time he spent in Lawrence.
“It changed my life. A lot of people say it changed their life ... but it changed my life,” Lawson said of the move. “You could ask people from Memphis and you can ask people from KU how I act, and they’ll tell you it’s totally different.”
A day after scoring 13 points in KU’s NCAA Tournament victory over Northeastern in Salt Lake City, Lawson opened up about what the program and team meant to him — some two weeks before Friday’s confirmation from KU coach Bill Self that Lawson had decided to transfer to a new school next season.
Lawson said he hadn’t always been at peace during a two-year tenure to start his college career at Memphis. The worst moments came during his redshirt freshman season, when he battled an Achilles injury that limited him to 10 games and also made it difficult to play at the level he expected.
“I would say I was kind of depressed,” Lawson said. “The first year, and when I got injured, I really wasn’t at a good place. I didn’t really want to play basketball any more.”
After one more year with Memphis, K.J. decided to transfer with his brother, Dedric, to KU. Even that wasn’t without controversy, as K.J. cursed his former coach Tubby Smith in a Snapchat video.
“I was immature, wrong, for saying that. I should have never said that,” Lawson said. “ ... I love Memphis, love Tubby. I just felt like we could’ve won more games. That’s where it came from.”
Right after that, Lawson said, he began to see the world in a different way.
It started by being around KU teammates Devonté Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman at summer camps and workouts.
“They put a lot of work into what they were doing,” Lawson said. “Those guys were very selfless. They worked extremely hard on their shot. That’s how I became the shooter I am, to be real — watching those guys and taking from them.”
With more time away from the distractions of home, Lawson also began to change the way he lived. He altered his diet — becoming a Vegan — and also renewed his faith while devoting more time to Bible study.
Lawson said it was then he came to a realization: “I’ve been doing it wrong the whole time.” His focus had been on being entitled, he said, when he needed to think more about humility.
“I’ve got a lot of discipline in my life now,” Lawson said. “I’ve changed a lot, renewing my mind.”
The shift included a reduction in social media, which Lawson said often consumed him often during his time at Memphis.
“You’ve got to ‘fast’ from people,” Lawson said. “I feel like people were affecting the way I was thinking: Instagram, Twitter. You look at people’s comments, like a lot of people do. You look and you’re going to see people talk bad about you, but they don’t really know what you’ve been through or your work ethic.”
Lawson became much more selective with his online words. He didn’t post on his Twitter account this past season, and in other forums, he spoke sparingly while also caring less about how others perceived him.
“It’s just a lot of little small things that you let get to your internal,” Lawson said. “It’ll bother the (hell) out of you if you’re competitive. That’s just why you’ve got to watch what you look at.”
Through it all, Lawson said he found more tranquility. He also came to appreciate the opportunity he had at KU while knowing it wasn’t something he valued a few years back.
As a high schooler, Lawson said his sole aim was getting to professional basketball as soon as possible. When he neared the top 25 in prep rankings, he even had thoughts of going to play overseas to get his career started more quickly.
“I didn’t really want to go to college. I didn’t really want to go,” Lawson said. “I’d be lying if I said I did.”
Now, Lawson will be a KU graduate in May, getting his degree from the college of liberal arts and sciences. He said his plan is to one day become an educator or behavioral analyst.
“The more mature I got, the older I got, I was like, ‘Oh, not a lot of people make it (pros).’ Not a lot of people get a degree either,” Lawson said. “So I’ve got to take advantage of what’s going on.”
Lawson also met his fiancee at KU, proposing to her the summer before this season began.
“That definitely turned my life too,” Lawson said. “It was a process, letting a lot of people go. Focusing in on what I needed to do. It was a great feeling.”
Lawson, who turns 23 on May 7, will have two years of basketball eligibility remaining while pursuing a post-graduate degree.
Though his playing time at KU was limited — he averaged 9.9 minutes in his 35 games — Lawson will likely look back at this two-year stint fondly.
“I could have been easily dead or in the grave,” Lawson said of growing up in Memphis. “Even playing in Memphis, because there’s a lot of things that can go wrong. Off campus, the safety of KU is just tremendous. The security that they have. I just thank them for delivering me out of the position that I was in, because it’s bigger than basketball.”
It all started, for Lawson, with a boring summer in Lawrence two years ago.
“I was kind of going down damnation when I was in Memphis. I kind of went down the wrong road,” Lawson said. “I’ve just fully been focused on my craft here. It’s just been like re-creating myself once I stepped foot at Kansas. They have done a lot for me, off the court more than on the court.
“I’m just grateful for this opportunity.”