Lightfoot following path laid out by Landen Lucas a season ago
The Kansas basketball team’s recent exhibition victories over Missouri at Sprint Center and Pittsburg State at Allen Fieldhouse carried with them a bunch of good signs and exposed a few areas of concern for the 2017-18 team.
While many of those were of the big picture, team variety, there were more than a few individual efforts that left people encouraged about the upcoming season.
Senior point guard Devonté Graham went off and showed that he’s ready for the bigger role he’ll have this season. 7-foot center Udoka Azubuike showed promise on both ends of the floor and gave Kansas that inside scoring presence it has lacked in recent years. And freshman forward Billy Preston demonstrated, in limited minutes both times, that he was both able and willing to hang next to the basket and do some of the dirty work inside for a team that needs to develop its frontcourt depth as quickly as possible.
However, one of the more overlooked aspects of KU’s first two exhibition games — the Jayhawks will play their final exhibition game of the season at 7 p.m. Tuesday vs. Fort Hays State at Allen Fieldhouse — came from sophomore forward Mitch Lightfoot.
The most experienced forward on KU’s roster in terms of college games played, Lightfoot spent the summer working on all aspects of his game in an attempt to make a bigger impact during his second year as a Jayhawk. As is the case with most athletes, getting bigger, stronger and faster were major focuses for Lightfoot, but so, too, was the ability to expand his offensive game.
Lightfoot spent countless hours in various gyms working on his outside shot, hoping to become a smoother shooter with better range to give KU coach Bill Self the option of putting his size out there while still operating with a small ball mentality.
Although he no doubt became a better shooter during those months, it has not yet translated to game-type situations.
He struggled to shoot the ball from the outside during the team’s four-game trip to Italy in August and did not really show much in that department during KU’s summer camp scrimmages, or at Late Night, either.
So where’s the good news? Easy. Lightfoot barely even thought about attempting an outside shot during KU’s wins over the Tigers or Gorillas, pulling the trigger from the outside just once in the two games combined.
And, as we approach the start of the regular season — now just four days away — Lightfoot seems to know that the easiest way for him to log meaningful minutes is to be a scrapper, hit the glass, play tough defense and score on easy opportunities inside, off of assists from teammates and put-backs near the rim.
“I’m a pretty confident person,” Lightfoot said Monday. “But when you’ve got, like, Svi (Mykhailiuk) out there, I’m pretty sure he’s a better shooter than me, so I’m gonna get him a shot. If that means an extra pass (or a screen) then so be it.”
This whole scenario reminds me a lot of Landen Lucas last season. After a strong junior year in which he became known for his defense and rebounding, Lucas spent the summer before his senior year working tirelessly to expand his offensive game.
He worked on post moves, drilled with both hands, tried to extend his range a little and emphasized a different mentality that would paint him as a player who could catch the ball in the post and get a bucket for his team.
But those improved skills and Lucas’ expanded mindset too rarely showed up in games, and Lucas, partly because of his offensive struggles and partly because of a nagging foot injury, often appeared frustrated during the first few weeks of the 2016-17 season.
You might remember that Lucas’ progress was almost a daily story line and questions about his “funk” were asked constantly. In time, Lucas climbed out of that funk and turned in an equally strong senior season.
The biggest reason? He got back to doing what he did best and being himself. He ditched the offensive mindset and went back to work on the boards and defense, allowing his points to come off of the hard work he was putting in and positioning himself in the right place at the right time on the offensive end.
Lightfoot seems to be on that same path. And if the 6-foot-8 sophomore, who is regarded as an overall better athlete than Lucas, already has reached that point mentally, it’s definitely a sign of more good things to come.
“I’m just embracing that role of being the energy guy and helping the guards get good shots ... because we have great guards,” said Lightfoot, entertaining comparisons to former Jayhawks such as Kevin Young and Jamari Traylor. “Being a big guy, I can know the big man position, the 4 and the 5, but I also have some quickness to me so I can rebound better, bring some energy, maybe defend smaller players and stuff like that.”
Added Self, who seemed to like the sound of Lightfoot’s understanding of his role this season: “He’s going to play as a big guy; he’s not going to play another spot on the floor. He’s going to play as a 4 man 80 percent of the time when he’s out there, and he may have to play as a 5 man some. But he’s never going to play as a 3 man, at least this year, I wouldn’t think. We’ve got too many other guards.”