Their decisions may have been questioned, but Derrick Favors and Gani Lawal will soon have the opportunity to prove whether they were the right ones to make.
Effectively ending their Georgia Tech careers Thursday night, the two underclassmen tested professional basketball’s deep waters and became the first Yellow Jackets products to be selected in the NBA draft since 2007.
Favors, the ACC’s most recent rookie of the year, had little time to wait, as mere minutes passed before NBA commissioner David Stern announced that the New Jersey Nets wanted to make him their newest power forward with the third overall pick.
Placing a Nets hat atop his head like a tight-fitting red, white and blue crown, the 18-year-old glided toward the main stage at Madison Square Garden, beginning his transition from college to professional basketball.
“I just have to be myself,” Favors told ESPN. “I don’t need to try to go nowhere or get in trouble.”
For most fresh-faced players with hoop dreams big enough to fill Madison Square Garden’s ceiling, the idea of becoming an instant millionaire might create intentions of wanting to grow up too fast and too soon.
Not so for Favors.
“The thing about Derrick that makes me confident, is that what you’ll find off the court is, there won’t be a whole lot of distractions there that are going to keep him from doing his job,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Hewitt said in April when Favors decided to go pro after one season with the Yellow Jackets.
Favors turns 19 on July 15.
Joining the Yellow Jackets’ famed freshman in his collegiate departure was Lawal, Georgia Tech’s veteran enforcer in the paint this season. A second-round selection, Lawal was taken 46th overall by the Phoenix Suns.
Averaging 11.8 points and 8.3 rebounds, Lawal was among the team’s leaders both on the court and inside the locker room. Along with Favors, Lawal’s presence in the low post helped lead the Yellow Jackets to a 23-13 record, runner-up status in the ACC tournament and an NCAA tournament berth that ended in Milwaukee in the second round.
Lawal’s length — he owns a 7-foot wingspan — and ability to run the floor on fast breaks and in transition made him a prime candidate for several teams.
His relatively low selection, however, likely comes as a surprise to many around the Georgia Tech program, as he flirted for the second straight summer with the draft process. After withdrawing from the process before this season, Lawal returned for his third year, hoping to refine the areas scouts believed he struggled with the previous season. Among them were free throw shooting, jump shooting from mid-range and adding weight to bang bodies with heavier centers and forwards in the post.
Although Lawal put on weight, he saw marginal improvement in his mid-range game and free throw shooting. He bumped his free throw percentage up to 57.2 from the 55.9 he shot the year before.
At points this spring, he had been projected a mid-to-late first-round pick.
Adding weight and muscle was also a focus for Favors during the season, and it seemed to help elevate his game to a place scouts wanted it.
“Derrick Favors was in the weight room — after a ballgame,” former Georgia Tech standout and current ESPN analyst Jon Barry said on the network’s telecast Thursday. “He just wants to get better.”
Favors credited that desire to some advice he learned from fellow former Yellow Jackets forward Chris Bosh.
“He just told me to work hard, keep my head on straight and keep that hunger that I have,” Favors said to ESPN.
The 2009 national high school player of the year averaged 12.4 points in his only season at Georgia Tech and had 74 blocks. He also became the 17th Yellow Jackets player taken in the first round, and fifth taken in the Hewitt era.
In addition to his national award in 2009, Favors also spent a weekend in Macon that year, helping South Atlanta claim a GHSA Class AAA championship at the Coliseum.