Hilltopper Basketball vs Campbellsville
Hilltopper Basketball vs Campbellsville

Britain's twin towers bring 'Swatland Yard' to WKU

Swatland Yard became a two-man police force thanks to serendipity as much as by design. That’s Ben Lawson’s side of the story, at least. And he’s sticking to it.

“I had no idea coach (Ray Farmer) was even recruiting him until he said, ‘We’ve got an English guy coming to campus; I’d like you to look after him a little bit,’” Western Kentucky’s forward said when asked about Nathan Smith, the Hilltoppers’ freshman and his fellow English countryman. “And I went, ‘Oh, the guy from an hour away.’”

Let’s face it: When it comes to large men in the south of England, it’s a small club on a small island. Pressed to count how many 7-footers he actually knew of in his native land, the 7-foot-1 Lawson gave a careful pause.

“A very small handful,” the Toppers’ junior chuckled. “Five. I really struggle to name five.”

And very few Division I programs — 17, actually — have more than one 7-footer peppering their respective rosters; WKU is one of just two in Conference-USA (Charlotte being the other).

But the odds of turning up two 7-footers from Great Britain on the same squad? Like Lawson’s reach, you’d have to think they’re fairly — well, long.

“I knew of Western because I knew Ben went here and I was following his progress,” said the 7-foot-2 Smith, whose ‘Toppers (1-0) visit Belmont (1-0), fresh off a win at Marquette, Wednesday night on ASN in one of those sneaky-good mid-major November showcases. “Then I (took) a visit and I just loved it here.”

Lawson looked after him fine, as it turns out, big brother showing little (big) brother the ropes, both home and abroad. This past summer, the pair were named to Great Britain’s Under-20 men’s national squad, the lessons continuing at the European Championships.

“I was always asking him questions,” Smith chuckled. “’What’s Western like?’ ‘How’s the transition going to be?’ And stuff like that.”

“It’s like a big shock to your system,” Lawson replied.

“And it has been,” Smith added. “Especially the athleticism over here, it’s just so much higher than back home. He (was) telling me, ‘You’ll feel really tired all the time, but it’ll be worth it, your body will adapt all the time.’ It’s a tough process.”

Lawson, who collected 13 points and five boards in the season-opening rout of Campbellsville (Ky.), is your classic Euro big, comfortable in the paint or spotting up along the wing. Smith, by contrast, is more of a conventional, back-to-the basket post option. In fact, when the latter’s calf is feeling right, Farmer has experimented with Lawson at the ‘4’ and the younger Brit at the ‘5’ — Twin Towers of London, if you like. Imagine a zone look with Lawson’s 7-foot-4 wingspan and Smith’s 7-foot-1 reach waiting in the blocks.

“It’s worked well,” Smith said. “We need to work on it. We just rotate because we’re both big guys, we’re both going to try to block the shot. But it’s a process and we just need to keep working on it.”

That said, familiarity doesn’t hurt. Already 6-foot-6 by the time he turned 16, Lawson prepped at Oaklands College in Hitchin, England, roughly an hour north of London, where his 4.7 blocks per game and inside-out skills — he shot 40 percent from beyond the arc — piqued Farmer’s interest.

Lawson hit the WKU campus two years ago at 195 pounds; he’s at 225 now. He was benching 125-130 pounds comfortably if he was lucky, but that’s improved to 215.

“I’ve found a lot more (than) the power lifting is kind of my experience, knowing how to use my strength,” said Lawson, who ranked fourth in Conference USA last winter in blocks per game (1.7) and fifth in total blocks (53). “That’s kind of a pride thing for me. My length is always going to hinder me doing the stationary bench and stuff like that, but I’d like to think when I’m using my whole body, I’m pretty proficient.”

Smith, meanwhile, grew up in Essex, about an hour south of London, where he’d gravitated toward rugby, because “I couldn’t kick a (soccer) ball,” he mused. “I wasn’t very coordinated with it.”

Nathan got introduced to hoops through his older brother — dad is 6-6 and an uncle is 6-9, so height runs in the gene pool — who also taught him the basics of the game. And once he saw footage of Kobe Bryant it was all over - the kid was hooked.

“Unless you have ESPN (in the UK), you have to find (basketball) online,” Nathan recalled. “But even if you do, you still have to stay up until, like, 3 in the morning to watch it, so, especially on a school nights and stuff, if there’s a big game, and you want to stay up, you’re going to be tired as hell the next day.”

At the age of 14, he’d gone one better, scoring tickets to the 2012 Olympic men’s basketball semifinals in London, reveling in the rare opportunity to see America’s basketball giants — literally and figuratively — up close.

“That was my first kind of, like, game, watching it (in person),” Nathan recalled. “And I had all the players I kind of looked up to, like Kobe, LeBron (James), Anthony Davis.”

Which was cool. More cool: In addition to being one of the biggest frontcourts in C-USA, WKU’s set of British big men are also toting one of the loop’s sweetest nicknames: Swatland Yard. Topping that last one sounds as if it could become a rather, um, tall order.

“I like ‘Swatland Yard,’” Smith said. “Ben’s nickname is ‘Big Ben.’ I’ve been nicknamed ‘Nasty Nate.’ I quite like that.”

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