Landen Lucas excited to get back on floor for power-packed Kansas Jayhawks
No basketball player worth his weight likes sitting on the bench.
Riding the pine is a frustrating, occasionally vexing happening, in particular when the player is talented and resourceful enough to compete in game action.
Former Sunset and Westview hoops star Landen Lucas didn't sign with the University of Kansas in 2012 to be the over-exuberant dude at the end of the bench, madly waving towels, enticing the crowd, cheering on the Jayhawks to victory.
Lucas committed to Kansas because he wanted to be an impact player on the highest level, the post shining on ESPN and CBS every week, getting the pub that accompanies being part of one of the nations' blue-blood programs.
Kansas coach Bill Self and the coaching staff said they thought the world of Lucas' potential to be a key contributor in the Big 12 Conference. After all, 6-foot-10, 240-pound power forwards who can pass the rock from the pivot, knock down jumpers from the outside but don't back down from contact don't grow on trees.
Yet, when Lucas sat down with Self toward the end of Kansas' preseason practices in October and discussed the future, the option of redshirting came up. Redshirting, in a nutshell, means delaying an athlete's participation to lengthen their period of eligibility. In a redshirt year, a student-athlete may attend classes at the college or university, practice with an athletic team and dress for play, but can't compete during the game.
At first, Lucas was reticent to the idea. He couldn't remember the last time he'd missed back-to-back games, let alone an entire season of play. The thought of running into the roaring Phog Allen Fieldhouse before a rabid crowd would have to wait. Playing in the NCAA Tournament, getting on One Shining Moment, would be put on ice. The lure of the game wouldn't be there to go after, that carrot to chase.
Then, after a few days talking it over with his dad Richard, who played for the University of Oregon in the late 1980s, and looking at the freight of posts entrenched on the Jayhawk roster, Lucas signed off on the redshirt.
It wasn't an easy decision, nor a very popular one at the time in Lucas' eyes. He's a player who relishes the atmosphere of a big game and the adrenaline that comes with it.
Looking back, Lucas said it might not have been the sought-after, glamorous conclusion that'd he dreamed of on National Signing Day at Westview High, but it was the right one with fathomless, long-lasting rewards.
First of all, Lucas said there wasn't any outside pressure to improve rapidly or take on a role that he wasn't comfortable embracing. He adapted to the speed of the college game at his own pace, and enhanced his skills with the help of the Jayhawk staff while gaining swagger and strength via marathon workout sessions in the Kansas weight room.
It's paid off big, Lucas says. I had to make things fun and competitive. It really gave me a new appreciation for practice that I hope to carry into this year.
"Basketball's a game of confidence, and now I go out there, and it's just a whole new game, everything's a lot slower. It's a lot calmer on the court, and that's a great feeling to have going into my first year of playing.
Admittedly, Lucas always had trouble scoring against longer, lankier shot blockers in the pivot. Lucas could free himself from these defenders, but their extended wingspans bothered his attempts at the rim. It was a problem, that is, until Lucas stood up to 7-foot Jeff Withey Kansas' NCAA's co-defensive player of the year every day in practice.
Withey wholeheartedly introduced Lucas to what elite college basketball is all about during the preseason, immediately swatting any shot the wide-eyed freshman put up in the paint.
That happened for the first couple months, Lucas says with a laugh. I was so used to finding a way to score, but he was just so good at what he did. There were many moments where I thought I had him, and he'd come back and block my shot.
Toward the end of the year, however, Lucas started outfoxing Withey. Using his strength, Lucas got into the shot blocker's chest to create the separation needed to get off over-the-shoulder jump hooks and bank attempts. Few collegiate posts have ever looked good trying to outmaneuver Withey a probable first-round pick in next week's NBA draft. But Lucas' flickers of aptitude did an abundance of good for his assertiveness on the floor.
I learned how to score against guys like him, and now if we were to come back, I have a totally different confidence when I catch the ball in the post, Lucas says. I went through that stage without the fear of losing playing time, and now I can go out there and use what I've learned.
Redshirting can be taxing. It can play mind games with the wrong athlete. Some start pointing fingers and look for a way out of the situation.
Luckily, Lucas says the year went by pretty quick with workouts, practice and school taking up the majority of his day-to-day routine.
At the same time, sitting on the sidelines in street clothes was tough. Lucas might not have suited up for the Jayhawks on game day, but he still weathered Self's recurrently rugged practices and had to prepare as if he were starting at the 4 spot.
There were times when Lucas was a bull in a china shop, bruising the Jayhawk starters with his wide frame, scoring around the tin and gobbling rebounds like Pez Candy.
Yet, when tip time rolled around for a Big Monday showdown or a top-10 Saturday matchup with Ohio State, Lucas would stand under the hoop as his teammates warmed up and got ready for battle.
When you're on a redshirt, no matter how long or how well you play, it doesn't change whether you get more (playing time), so that was hard, he says.
Thankfully for Lucas, he's had to adjust to new situations his whole life. He went to school in Japan for two years while Richard played professional basketball. Then the big man started his high school career at Sunset and ended it at Westview with a year of playing at Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., squished in-between.
The constant change made the modification of moving from the West Coast to the plains of Lawrence smoother than most freshmen would experience. Lucas says it didn't hurt that Kansas fans treat the players like kings on campus.
The best part about Lucas' redshirt, perhaps, is that he still has four years of eligibility to lace up for Kansas, including next season.
Kansas has Final Four talent, and Lucas is a big piece of the puzzle. The Jayhawks have scoring, rebounding, size, and the ability to lock up opponents both in the halfcourt and fullcourt.
As Lucas sees it, Kansas' overflowing, lavish roster is perfect for him. He won't be asked to score 20 points a game, haul in 10 boards and be the second coming of former All-American Thomas Robinson.
Lucas wants to do the little things, such as playing solid defense in the post and getting primal on the glass. Those are duties that don't necessarily show up in the stat sheet or on SportsCenter but are invaluable on a possible national championship-caliber team.
Fulfilling these commitments could endear Lucas both to the coaching staff and the passionate Jayhawk fan base.
Ready to go
I want to help the other guys look better, Lucas says. That's what the team needs, and I feel that suits me well because at the end of the day, while the scoring is coming along, my bread-and-butter has always been doing the dirty work. I look forward to bringing that to the team, and I've done my best to show Coach (Self) that that's what I can do for him.
Since the NCAA allows basketball teams to practice during the summer, Lucas has gotten the chance to play pickup games with some of his uber-talented teammates, including phenoms Andrew Wiggins the consensus top recruit in the 2013 class and Wayne Selden, a national top-10 recruit. Kansas is stacked, with the nation's top recruiting class coming in, Memphis transfer Tarik Black arriving this summer and stars Naadir Tharpe and Perry Ellis coming back.
It's exciting, Lucas says. I feel like we're going to have a lot of exposure, a lot of good games, and practices are going to be intense. Regardless of who plays and who doesn't, guys are going to be getting better, and competition for each is spot is going to be fun.
"You couldn't ask for a better place to play.
The idea of playing in Phog Allen Fieldhouse one of college basketball's best and loudest arenas kept Lucas' flame kindled as he worked his fingers to the bone prepping for his redshirt freshman season.
There are very few schools in the country where you would get that at, so I'm very happy to be a part of one of them, he says. It's a great environment to be a part of. I'm ready to get out there. The season's going to be here before I know, so I just have to make sure I'm prepared and ready to go.