Jayhawk Insider: The Evolution of Mitch Lightfoot
By Mitch George
LAWRENCE, Kan. – Some would say junior forward Mitch Lightfoot’s eyes stayed locked on Oklahoma State forward Yor Anei’s for a couple beats too long.
Others would say it was a necessary gesture–energizing a team that needed a spark in the second half against a scrappy OSU squad, who were trailing by six points on February 9. After all, Anei’s attempted dunk would have cut the Jayhawk lead to just four points.
Despite being called for a travel on the play, Anei leaped toward the basket with the intention of slamming the basketball, only to be met by the vaulting body of Lightfoot in full extension.
The ball was sent in the opposite direction.
Lightfoot took two paces toward Anei before being corralled by freshman guard Devon Dotson, who spun the 6-foot-8 rim defender away from the opponent and toward the KU bench.
The play sent an eruption coursing through the veins of Allen Fieldhouse and solidified a notion that Kansas fans have consistently witnessed for the past three years: Mitch Lightfoot is tough.
Perhaps more notably, the defensive stop led to the christening of Lightfoot’s new alter ego: “Prison Mitch.”
“Certain aspects of my game do coincide with the ‘Prison Mitch’ outlook,” Lightfoot said. “I allow myself to play with a reckless abandon and enjoy it.”
Stemming from the television show “The Office,” Lightfoot earned this nickname by way of his stifling defense in recent games.
Fast-forward 16 days to Kansas’ must-win matchup against Kansas State on Feb. 25, head coach Bill Self credited Lightfoot for playing the best game of his Kansas career. Despite contributing a modest nine points, five rebounds and two assists, the 225-pound forward once again served his role as the unrelenting spark plug the Jayhawks need down the stretch.
He rejected three Wildcat shots, adding even more emotion to the fiery Sunflower State rivalry.
After drilling a three-point shot late in the first half, Lightfoot pressed his index fingers to his thumbs, raised his remaining three fingers on each hand and lifted his hands into the air.
This play, combined with his coercing staredown against Oklahoma State, forms the perfect embodiment of Mitch Lightfoot’s playing style, a mix of light-heartedness and competitive edge that makes him a fan favorite.
“This guy comes in and plays with fire,” Self said. “There are a lot of things to like about Mitch, and every Kansas fan probably feels the same way.”
Self also touted Lightfoot as the team’s best active rim protector, recognizing the need for shot disruption in the paint. His trademark is defensive hustle, so much so that he recorded his 10th-career game with three-or-more blocks.
“I’ve always been pretty decent on defense, but I’ve tried to jack it up a little more,” he said. “Offensively, allowing myself to expand my game has been important to me. Overall, (I’m) becoming more of a lockdown defender.”
Although his defensive traits have developed since coming to Lawrence, Lightfoot’s hustle at the opposite end of the floor began at the high school level. Kurt Keener, Lightfoot’s basketball mentor and nationally recognized high school coach at Gilbert Christian in Arizona, praised him for his defensive prowess.
“He loves the intimidating factor of blocking shots,” Keener said. “He’s willing to challenge anybody going to the rim. He’s not necessarily the biggest guy in terms of strength or length, but he has a mindset that he’s going to challenge you.”
Lightfoot has been challenging Big 12 opponents all season, ranking in the top 10 in blocked shots per game during the conference slate. He’s also been the team leader in charges taken this season and last, drawing a combined 27 charges from the start of 2017-18 through Monday night’s contest against the Wildcats.
His defensive skills have transferred to the collegiate ranks, and his intangible traits have followed as well.
“He understands the team concept and he’s willing to sacrifice his individual achievements or accolades for the good of the team,” Keener noted. “He would gladly sacrifice being an all-league player to getting the 15th-consecutive (Big 12 Championship).”
Lightfoot was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and grew up a die-hard KU fan, making his playing time for the Jayhawks a dream come true.
“I’ve been dreaming of being a Jayhawk since I knew what basketball was,” he said when announcing his commitment in high school. “I was that little kid in the stands watching the Jayhawks play.”
Now playing on the court he had dreamed about his entire youth, Lightfoot enjoys the humor of his new, somewhat-satirical “tough guy” identity and wants it to continue.
He listed an array of players he attempts to emulate defensively, making sure to note he doesn’t think he’s as good as any of them. His selection includes NBA players like Dennis Rodman and Draymond Green due to of their efficiency despite lack of size.
He also looks up to former Jayhawks Jamari Traylor, Kevin Young, Travis Releford and Landen Lucas.
Although he still has another year of eligibility following this season, Lightfoot has left a lasting impression on the Kansas basketball program, an impression of intensity, hustle and likeability.
“I want to be remembered as a team player–someone who loved KU and wasn’t afraid to let that show,” he said. “(I want to be remembered) for being a part of the tradition that’s so much bigger than I am and just trying to help grow that tradition.”
As for his new identity, “Prison Mitch is alive and well,” he says.
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