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Gauging the Jermaine Lawrence effect

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Mick Cronin didn't hold back. He didn't need to. With top prospect Jermaine Lawrence officially in the fold for Bearcats basketball, he didn't need to hesitate when discussing a recruiting class now ranked among the Top 25 nationally by numerous services.

"By far the best recruiting class I've had as the head coach," Cronin said. 

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That's with much thanks to Lawrence, who verbally committed in Feb. 3, but officially signed his letter of intent on the first day of the late signing period Wednesday. The 6-foot-9, 200-pound forward arrives as the do-it-all specialist who provides the offensive depth on the interior the team searched for and never consistently found last season. 

Around the rim he's polished. He finishes, dishes and creates matchup problems with his versatility. On defense, he can block shots with the best of them and play three different positions. Sure, he was ranked as the No. 19 overall prospect in the country by Scout.com, but rankings can be misleading, right? Yes. What's not misleading is his county championship game as a junior when Lawrence scored 25 points with 15 rebounds and 15 blocks. 

He turned into a double-double machine that junior year when he averaged 18.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 6.4 blocks at Pope John Paul XXIII HS (N.J.). Suffering through a tendon injury that derailed his senior season, his stats dipped to 13.3 points and 7.5 rebounds but he will arrive at UC 100 percent healthy. 

The potential is clear. 

"He can win a game for you with points," Cronin said. "He can pass, he can rebound, feel for the game, he can defend three positions, he can block shots. He understands how to play."

Searching for comparisons within the history of the program, Cronin couldn't pinpoint one. He's hard to match with players of the past at UC, he's very much of the future mold Cronin has envisioned since taking over seven years ago. His length, versatility and athleticism on the court more correlates to Thursday night's on TNT than grainy UC flashback videos on YouTube. 

Cronin said by the looks of him, he resembles Kenyon Martin in many ways, but he doesn't play like him. 

"He's a way more skilled offensive player at this point in his career than Kenyon was, if he can get Kenyon's ferociousness then he will not be here very long," Cronin said with a smile. "Which would be OK with me."

The kid can play, no doubt. The question for UC next year is how to gauge his possible instant impact. Thrusting freshmen into the lineup can be a risky maneuver and Cronin repeatedly stumps about veteran teams being the key to sustained success. Lauding praise and expectations can stunt growth and be emphatically unfair to the incoming player. Cronin's taken the development of freshmen with caution as his team depth built during the run of three straight NCAA tournament berths. 

When Lance Stephenson and Cashmere Wright debuted together as freshman in 2009 they averaged a combined 47 minutes per game because other options were limited. You can see how the leading freshman in minutes has been much lower in recent years. 

2012-13: Shaq Thomas: 10.8
2011-12: Ge'Lawn Guyn: 10.1
2010-11: Sean Kilpatrick: 20.6
2009-10: Lance Stephenson: 28.2
2009-10: Cashmere Wright: 18.5

It would be unfair on signing day to speculate how many minutes Lawrence will play this year and not at all the point in this case. What should be noted is the delicate balance necessary between asking for impact and allowing a player to develop naturally. 

Cronin plans to be cautious in not only placing expectations on Lawrence -- something us media types will do enough of -- but in forcing   him into an atmosphere where will be a central figure immediately.

"It would be grossly unfair to ask whether it be Jermaine Lawrence or Kevin Johnson or Troy Caupain to come in and be a savior in any way, shape or form," Cronin said. "I will guard against that happening. Jermaine gets the illustrious tag of being the highest rated recruit; I told him you get a box of popcorn with that, too. 

"That doesn't translate to immediate success at our level. That doesn't translate to the NBA Draft lottery. Life starts over. You get your first elbow in the chest then we are going to see who gets to contribute the most as a freshman."

Across the country the demand for freshman to become an All-American has grown exponentially over the past decade with everyone on a timetable to the NBA, but that's rarely the path to true success. 

Take a look at the 2013 All-Americans, for instance. Not a freshman on the first team -- three juniors and two sophomores. The second team featured freshmen Ben McLemore (Kansas) and Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State), but they come as rare cases. That's the misconception with the early-entry, one-and-done binge. Everyone looks at the select few who end up as lottery picks and misses the vast majority who develop naturally and effectively. 

Big East Player of the Year and first team AA Otto Porter went from averaging 10 and 7 his freshman year to 16 and 8 this past season. Teammate on the AA, Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk, didn't average more than six points until his junior season this year. 

Would UC like Lawrence or Caupain or Johnson, etc., to become All-American? Of course, they'd be the first one to do so since Steve Logan. But to expect him or anyone else in this talented freshman class to make that type of instant impact and take all the pressure off Sean Kilpatrick the minute they walk on campus would be misleading and misinformed.

Lawrence can be a productive player and supporting asset to this team this year in Cronin's eyes, but he won't be forced into more than that until he's clearly ready. The coach will be sure of that.  

"He has a chance to have a great career, how soon is a matter of how quickly he or any of the guys adjust," Cronin said. "I don't want any undue pressure on Jermaine Lawrence coming in here. I want him to stay focused on developing and becoming part of our team, whatever shakes out shakes out for him." 

Cronin completed that statement, before being sure to quickly add an important tagline. 

"But he's definitely capable of making an impact." 

I want to hear from you! What do you think of the Jermaine Lawrence signing, Mick's extension or any other development around UC? Shoot me an email with comments or questions to pauldehnerjr@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter @pauldehnerjr. 


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