Kansas senior Mitch Lightfoot has been far from perfect but ready when called upon for the sixth-ranked Jayhawks so far this season, making him a key part of KU’s rotation.
Never was that more evident — or important — than on Saturday afternoon during the sixth-ranked Jayhawks’ 76-67 home win over George Mason.
In a little over 21 minutes in relief of the struggling David McCormack, the veteran forward made all seven shots he took and brought a sense of order and efficiency to the Kansas offense.
As a result, Kansas coach Bill Self is contemplating using him a little more in the future.
“We’ve got to play Mitch more,” Self said after Saturday’s win. “It’s time to play him more; there’s no question.”
By more, Self is probably not talking about much more than the 21 minutes Lightfoot played on Saturday. But that was an increase of nine minutes — nearly a quarter of a game — on the 12.3 minutes per game average he carried into Saturday’s contest.
“Mitch, to me, is kind of the energy guy off the bench,” Self said. “But he plays in short spurts. So it looks like he's more energetic. And then when he plays in longer spurts he (doesn’t) look as energetic, to me, but he’s probably more efficient.”
To this point in his career, Lightfoot most often has been used as a change-of-pace option off the bench. But Self’s comments Saturday make it worth wondering if a more important role awaits.
Big enough and always willing to battle on the glass or at the rim, and smart enough and experienced enough to be in the right spots and make the right plays on offense, Lightfoot, this season more than any, has taken advantage of the lessons he has learned in his years of service.
“Being comfortable (helps),” he said. “I’ve been here a little bit and (you get) more comfortable the longer you’re in a system. I was comfortable (on Saturday) and it translated.”
The 6-foot-8 do-everything forward is shooting 62.5% from the floor this season, and, more times than not, he has scored quick baskets in the post shortly after checking in.
Perhaps they stand out because of the ease with which they come and the way KU’s offense operates while he’s out there. Or maybe they’re more noticeable because they often have followed a series of missed shots or struggles at the rim by McCormack in the minutes before he checked in.
Regardless, Lightfoot said he was happy to provide anything the Kansas offense needs, be it jump hooks in the post, dunks while running to the rim, hard screens on the perimeter or good body and ball movement.
“I wouldn’t say I’m hunting shots or anything like that,” he said after Saturday’s win. “I’m just trying to find stuff within the rhythm of the offense. If you take out the post in any offense, it kind of makes it a little more stale. So, I just have to go in there and give them what they need out of that position. (Saturday), it was scoring and I was glad I was able to convert on those jump hooks and stuff like that.”
It’s been since 2018 that Lightfoot had a role this important for the Jayhawks.
That year, as a sophomore on KU’s Final Four-bound team, Lightfoot averaged a career-best 14 minutes per game while playing in 38 contests and starting seven.
An injury to KU big man Udoka Azubuike late in the season landed Lightfoot a starting nod during the postseason, and although his numbers were modest and his minutes stayed low, his steady presence was key.
The following year, Lightfoot averaged 11.7 minutes per game and fell back into the use-as-needed role. And in 2019-20, which was supposed to be his true senior season, Lightfoot elected to redshirt because of KU’s crowded frontcourt. That allowed him to average 10.6 minutes in 30 games, with one start, during the 2020-21 season and the pandemic allowed him to stick around for one more run.
There remains a long way to go before anything concrete can be said about Lightfoot’s contribution to this Kansas team. But his arrow is trending upward and he continues to show that, whether as a skinny, inexperienced sophomore or a savvy, sixth-year senior, Lightfoot’s feel and understanding of the game — not to mention what Self wants from his big men — has made him a key contributor throughout his KU career.
When asked about the Jayhawks’ lack of bench production prior to Saturday’s win over George Mason, Self offered a clear look at how much he values Lightfoot, much in the way he did with Conner Teahan back in 2012.
“I don’t even look at Mitch and Jalen (Wilson) as bench guys,” he said.
Self’s first opportunity to play Lightfoot more comes Tuesday night in Stillwater, Oklahoma, when the Jayhawks take on Oklahoma State at 8 p.m. on ESPN2.