LEE, Maine (BVM) – Basketball has taken Lee Academy’s Toibu Lawal places he would have never expected. With many picking up the sport early on in their lives, Lawal got his first introduction to the game in his mid-teens. Ever since, it’s given him an opportunity he just can’t pass up.
Growing up in London, Lawal wasn’t surrounded by the game like much of his now prep competition was. After picking up the game around the age of 16, Lawal would decide later on to join the club team at City of London Academy following his friends’ suggestions.
“I had friends that played basketball because [growing up] I only played football (soccer) and track,” Lawal said of his start. “They were the ones that got me into it. Just before I turned 16, that’s when they said I should come to their club team.”
The switch to the club would jumpstart Lawal’s evolution in the game, giving the 6-foot-8 forward a chance to showcase his athleticism and growing skillset. With his London Academy coach sending his tape around, one school in particular was impressed by the early work the rising star had already shown. The school’s interest would provide an opportunity Lawal wasn’t quite prepared for.
“I wasn’t really that serious about basketball to be honest,” Lawal said at the time. “He sent my mixtape around and Coach [Dan] Haynes said he had interest in me and that he would want me to play prep basketball in America. After I found out, I just told my mom and told my brother and they said that it would be better if I took the opportunity than not take it at all and regret it. So, I just took it.
“Obviously, I’ve started to take basketball more seriously now and I feel like I’ve started to see my growth and me getting better in general. So I was like, why not?”
Lawal’s nearly-3,000 mile move to the U.S. allowed him to gain a step up in competition after playing back at home. For Lawal, the biggest change would come on the court with a more physical style of play in the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council (NEPSAC). After spending a period of his season adapting to the new style, Lawal would find ways to adjust on the fly, seeing his game progress the longer he was able to work on it. During his year with Lee Academy, the Pandas forward averaged 10.6 points and 8.6 rebounds.
“The basketball is quite different,” Lawal said of the NEPSAC style. “It was faster, more physical, and the skill level is obviously higher. At first it was a bit difficult but I think I adjusted quickly. After a while I felt really comfortable. Where I am in Maine, there’s really nothing to do so I could just focus on basketball and school.”
The impressive campaign not only turned the heads of his coaching staff, but from colleges across the country. It wouldn’t take long for his recruiting process to heat up as his Pandas’ coach got in contact with different assistants at the collegiate level. After only one season abroad, Lawal found himself committing to VCU after a visit to the program.
“As soon as I got here, I had quite a lot of interest already,” Lawal said. “The main thing was just finding [somewhere] I could thrive and help the program win at the same time. I want to be pushed. I want to develop as a player and a person on and off the court. I want to be put in [different] situations because I just want to become better overall. I just had to find a place where I could do that and VCU was the perfect fit for me.”
With so many dynamics changing around him, Lawal believes the year has given him a headstart on operating on his own. For the last year, Lawal has made sure to make the most of his time away from family, constantly working in the gym to better his game. For him, being coachable has always been his priority and this past season has really allowed him to grow not only on the court, but off it as well.
“I like to be a sponge,” Lawal said. “Anything the coach is saying, I take it in and try to execute it. The thing I think I improved on the most was just being independent. Being away from home, it’s kind of hard when you don’t have your family [around]. So being independent has been a big thing [for me].”
As Lawal prepares to make the jump to the collegiate level, you can expect him to rely on the one thing that’s gotten him here so far: his work ethic.
“After my first year playing basketball, I was always in the gym,” Lawal said. “I saw my focus increase and I had tunnel vision after that. After I knew I had opportunities, I wasn’t going to waste it.”