When new coach Ron Hunter tweeted Friday it was a great day for Tulane basketball, he knew what was coming.
K.J. Lawson, a 6-foot-8 former Memphis and Kansas big guard, and Christion Thompson, a 6-foot-4 Madison Prep alum who played for Rhode Island, will join the Green Wave next year as graduate transfers, a source confirmed Monday afternoon. Jeff Goodman of The Stadium first reported Lawson’s transfer.
Lawson, the older brother of NBA draft entrant Dedric Lawson, earned American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year honors at Memphis as a redshirt freshman in 2016-17, averaging 12.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists.
After transferring to Kansas along with his brother, he struggled to get consistent minutes this past season, averaging 3.1 points off the bench. Still, he scored 13 in the Jayhawks’ first-round NCAA tournament victory against Northeastern.
At Memphis, Lawson registered nine double-doubles and poured in a career-high 28 points in an overtime victory against Houston. He was redshirted in 2015-16 because of a heel injury after playing in 10 games, including a 15-point outing against Tulane.
Thompson, a Gonzalez native, averaged 5.7 points and 3.5 as a redshirt junior at Rhode Island, starting the first 15 games before coming off the bench the rest of the way. He had a season-high 15 points in the season opener against Bryant and scored 11 as Rhode Island upset regular season champion Virginia Commonwealth in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament.
The addition of the two transfer guards gives Tulane, which went 4-27 overall and 0-18 in the American Athletic Conference, six newcomers in a quick makeover. Charlie Russell of Sophie B. Wright and Chicago's R.J. McGee signed recently, joining Dunleavy signee Nobal Days in the freshman class.
Georgia guard Teshaun Hightower transferred and will have two years of eligibility left, although he will have to sit out 2019-2020 barring a successful appeal to the NCAA.
Hunter said the only player in limbo was St. Augustine's Caleb Daniels, a rising junior who averaged 16.9 points and lit up Wichita State for 36 in the regular-season finale. Daniels applied for the NBA draft and entered the NCAA transfer portal, but a source said he had not visited any school to this point, increasing the likelihood of him staying at Tulane if he pulls his name out of the draft. The deadline is May 29, but Hunter said last week he expected to know his final roster sooner than then.
“We really like him and think he can really help us, but he can only help us if he wants to be here,” Hunter said. “Caleb and I have talked. I wish him the best whatever happens to him. If he wants to come back here, then I would love to have him, but if he wants to move on, it won't change what we'll be next year and the next few years.”
Sophomore Moses Wood (4.5 points, 3.1 rebounds) and Connor Crabtree (7.1 points, 2.0 rebounds) have transferred to Nevada and Richmond, respectively, but Hunter said he expected everyone else from former coach Mike Dunleavy’s roster to return, including power forward Samir Sehic.
Sehic, who averaged 12.3 points and a team-high 7.7 rebounds, tweeted he was turning professional soon after Dunleavy was fired in March, but he continued to work out at the Green Wave practice facility.
“Samir will be back and will be a huge part of what we're trying to get done,” Hunter said. “There have been some guys that have been honestly pleasant surprises for me.”
Hunter said redshirt junior point guard Ray Ona Embo, redshirt sophomore point guard Jordan Walker, redshirt sophomore center Buay Koka, junior forward Bul Ajang and redshirt sophomore point guard Shakwon Barrett would participate in summer workouts beginning June 3. Sophomore swingman Kevin Zhang will compete for the Chinese national team before returning in the fall.
Ona Embo, who averaged 10.1 points and 3.3 assists as a freshman, missed all of 2018-19 with patellar tendinitis. Walker a Seton Hall transfer, sat out as per NCAA rules.
Zhang exploded for 24 points in his debut against Florida State, added 23 against then-Hunter coached Georgia State and had a season-high 25 against Memphis, but he scored in double digits only three other times, averaging 6.5 points.
“I really love his game,” Hunter said. “He'll get better by playing who he's going to play against (for China), but he'll miss out this summer, so we're going to have to give him a crash course when he gets back."
Hunter also praised Koka, a raw seven-foot who averaged 3.7 points and 2.6 rebounds before being sidelined by injury midway through the season.
“I've got a rim protector,” Hunter said. “I've never had a rim protector. I go home every day smiling because I've always had a 6-3 guy playing center for me. I've got a 7-foot guy with the wing span of a guy 7-6, so I think he's going to be terrific for us. We are going to spend a lot of time with him this summer.”