By ZACH BRAZILLER
Jermaine Lawrence walked into the Cardozo gym and before he could find his bearings, he was already being called out.
Ron Naclerio, emcee, organizer and host of the annual Cardozo Basketball Reunion, was on the microphone demanding Lawrence, the rising junior with immense potential, get on the court to face former Judges star and current Syracuse standout James Southerland.
Such is life these days for Lawrence, hailed by Naclerio as the present and future of the Queens powerhouse. The coach thinks the 6-foot-9 Jamaica native can be the greatest to ever come out of Cardozo, a list that includes former or current NBA players Rafer Alston, Royal Ivey and Duane Causwell. If Naclerio and his assistants aren’t on top of Lawrence about basketball, they are talking to him about grades or his offseason workout habits.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” said Lawrence, a second team All-Queens selection by the New York Post, who helped Cardozo go undefeated in Queens AA and reach the PSAL Class AA semifinals last year.
For a few minutes, the past and present was on display at Cardozo, Lawrence and Southerland going at each other, the two long and lean springy forwards racing up and down the court like gifted gazelles. It didn’t last long; Southerland tweaked his ankle and the two did more talking than hooping the rest of the afternoon.
The two are comparable talents because of their size, length, shooting range and athleticism, though Naclerio says Lawrence is more advanced than Southerland was as a sophomore. That’s partly because Lawrence played junior varsity his freshman year while Southerland was academically ineligible. He also does more at this age in the paint, such as rebounding, finishing and blocking shots.
“He definitely has a lot of potential,” Southerland said. “Not a lot of guys can do the things he can do at 6-foot-9.”
Southerland was always a natural jump-shooter, but lacked certain work habits in his teenage years. That’s one thing he’s talked to Lawrence about on several occasions.
“The older you get, the more you realize how much work you have to put in,” he said.
Southerland never had to work hard until he got to college, the result of his natural gifts. Spending much of his freshman year and the start of his sophomore season on the bench, it finally began to sink in. He willed his way into the Orange’s lineup last winter, averaging 4.9 points per game in 28 contests. Now, he is slated to start at power forward this season in Syracuse’s 1-4 lineup based on quickness and speed.
“Once James loses the little nervousness and immaturity, he has NBA about him — he has NBA talent,” said Naclerio, who spends much of his free time working out NBA players.
Lawrence, meanwhile, is just starting to get a feel for the recruiting process. During his sophomore year, he received a few offers, from Louisville, South Florida and Virginia Tech. A few more have popped up recently, from Cincinnati, Hofstra, Florida and Fordham. Since college coaches were allowed to make contact June 15, he has already heard from a number of other schools, such as UCLA, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Iowa, Iowa State, Rutgers and Villanova.
“Once I ended one call, another one came,” he said, smiling.
One Division I college coach involved in Lawrence’s recruiting raved about the talented wing’s upside.
“He’s long, athletic, he’s got a real good feel for the game,” the coach said. “He’s definitely a high-major player.”
That’s not news to Naclerio, who has been raving about Lawrence since he led the Judges to the PSAL championship game on the junior varsity level as a freshman. He’s never had a player with so much college interest at this early stage and Lawrence doesn’t do a ton of traveling on the AAU circuit, playing with local program Positive Direction.
“He can live the dream,” Naclerio said.
Quiet and reserved like Southerland, Lawrence hears the adulation, smiles and tries not to let them cloud his head. He likes the attention and the high praise he often hears, but knows there is work to be done.
“I don’t want to let people down, what they think of me,” he said. “Its motivation, to keep getting my name out there, to keep playing hard, so people can keep talking about me.”