RCW: The five-year plan
The Kansas men’s basketball program has produced numerous “one-and-dones” over the last three years such as Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Kelly Oubre Jr., and Cheick Diallo, all of whom played one year for the Jayhawks and went on to become first-round NBA draft picks. The five-year player is a rarer occurrence for the historic program, as it is for most “Power 5” college basketball programs.
Even Perry Ellis, the ageless Jayhawk (whose Wikipedia page at one point famously said that he was a 73-year-old college student, was only with the program for four years.
One of these unusual five-year players is center Landen Lucas, a redshirt senior from Portland, Oregon, who, for the past two years, has been a regular in the Jayhawk starting lineup.
A redshirt means the player sits out a year, and still has four years of eligibility available within the five-year window. It is commonly intended for players who need more time to learn, get physically bigger and/or develop their game.
Being a three-star recruit and the number one player in his home state of Oregon coming out of high school, the last thing Lucas expected and wanted to do was to redshirt, but after a while, he knew that was just part of the process.
“There were a lot of people I played against, and did well against, in high school and I saw them go to other schools while I was redshirted and they were playing and talking about the NBA,” Lucas said. “It was tough, but I have always had a belief that everything happens for a reason; (you’ve got to) just follow the plan and the process. I have never really worried too much about what other people were doing.”
Once the decision was made to redshirt, Lucas and his family found a silver lining and realized that he would get an opportunity to get both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree by the end of his playing days, another rarity in the college basketball world.
“Because my mom is a teacher, it was always a goal for me, one way or another, to figure out a way to graduate,” Lucas said. “When I redshirted, the big thing that came up was the master’s. I figured that if I had the extra year, I might as well take advantage of the time.”
When deciding on a major, Lucas thought he may want to end up in the business world someday, but did not feel he was ready to take on a business major as an undergraduate student. He decided on communications, but knew that he was going to be getting a master’s degree in his fifth year, so he decided on the Master of Business Administration (MBA) program.
Lucas is currently enrolled in an online MBA program through the KU School of Business. He and fellow Jayhawk fifth-year player, Tyler Self, who also live together, are now classmates, enrolled in the same master’s program.
“It is nice to have somebody who is going through the same thing,” Lucas said. “It definitely makes the process more enjoyable.”
After he receives his MBA in the spring of 2017, Lucas does not plan on quitting basketball any time soon. He hopes to join the ranks of the NBA, or follow in his father, Richard Lucas’ footsteps, who had a long basketball career in Japan, and play in another country.
“I am going to do whatever it takes to play in the NBA and then if not, definitely continue to play overseas,” Lucas said. “Regardless, I plan on playing basketball as long as my body allows me to.”
When his playing days are over, Lucas is keeping his options open about where he wants his life to go next.
“I could see myself doing a lot of things, from going into coaching or maybe going into broadcasting,” Lucas said. “I live right next to Nike in Portland and so I have a lot of Nike connections that I have thought about using (my) business (degree) to go into something at Nike.”
While Lucas is still sporting the Crimson and Blue, he plans to continue to lead as a senior for the Jayhawks. While fellow senior leader Frank Mason III leads his way, Lucas has his own approach.
“(Frank) leads by setting a tone and playing a big part in setting that culture,” Lucas said. “We feed off of him and everything that he does. If he comes into practice and is really energetic, all of a sudden, everyone else is too. It helps because of his position being a point guard, you naturally follow him. I would say that I will just help coach some guys and hopefully lead by example in some ways and throwing in my input as much as possible.”
Earlier in his collegiate career, Lucas was the one being mentored by veteran big men. Now that he is the veteran, he knows that it is important to pay it forward, and mentor the other up-and-coming big men like sophomore Carlton Bragg Jr., freshmen Mitch Lightfoot and Udoka Azubuike and junior transfer Dwight Coleby.
“I feel like giving input in certain situations is better than telling them how to do certain things,” Lucas said. “Because my style of play is different than others, it is not going to be the same. I try to tell them what might work best for them in situations and let them pick and choose what fits into their game.”
Lucas describes the big men of Kansas basketball as a close group, and he has gotten the privilege of playing with some big names such as Embiid and Diallo, as well as Tarik Black and Jeff Withey. While they each became big names in the NBA, during their time at KU they were known to Lucas as just another guy on the team that was instrumental in helping him become the player he is today.
“Looking back, it is all these big names, but at the time, that was just another teammate that you battled with every day. It definitely gives you confidence, you had your days against them and they had their days against you and you just went at it,” Lucas said. “To see how successful those guys are, it gives me confidence day in and day out, in every game and in anything moving forward past college. Being able to play against those guys has definitely helped me.”
To become the Landen Lucas that has recorded double-digit points eight times and double-digit rebounds on 10 different occasions, as well as recording career highs in points (18), and rebounds (18) this season, he has learned to combine skills that he has with those that he learned from the Jayhawks that have come and gone before him.
“I think I have taken a little bit from all of them. A lot of it I came in with my own style of play and my own understanding of how I can do things my way because I have to,” Lucas said. “I don’t have the athletic ability of some of those guys or the length and height of some of those guys. I had to shape my own game. If I had to pick, I would say Tarik (Black) was the most helpful because he used his strength a lot. I took a little from all of them but really came in with my own style that I knew I had to use if I was going to play at this level.”
Black, who Lucas talks to regularly, and who he considers to be his off-the-court mentor, has high praise for Lucas’ character and how far he has come.
“He is very determined,” Black said. “We were texting back and forth the other day and (we talked about) perseverance. He proved a lot of people wrong staying at Kansas and sticking it out and waiting his turn. That is the true sign of a man. I really respect that.”
The rise of Embiid during Lucas’ first year of logging minutes for the Jayhawks is one of the things he will always remember during his Kansas basketball career.
“JoJo was fun to play with,” Lucas said. “The most impressive thing about him was seeing his growth. It was cool to play with him when he first got here and by the time he left, he was like a whole new player.”
While Embiid might have been his favorite teammate to play alongside, Lucas has another teammate that he enjoyed playing against in practices and scrimmages.
“I enjoyed going up against Tarik because while he was here, his strength was something he used and it was fun to battle against him in practice because that is something I take pride in, using my body,” Lucas said.
Black, who has played in 45 games this season for the Los Angeles Lakers, has his own take about a matchup with Lucas.
“Honestly, he is better than me,” Black said. “If you compare our senior years and we matched up against each other as seniors, Landen might win that matchup. He’s averaging almost a double-double right now in conference play. He is rebounding the heck out of the ball, he has great touch around the basket, knows how to get positioning. He is further along than I was, I will say that.”
In his five years as a Jayhawk, Lucas has been on veteran teams dominated by upperclassmen, as well as teams filled with freshmen and transfers. He sees a distinct difference in the how each team operates.
“(Teams with veterans) have a better understanding of the culture here,” Lucas said. “It was the small things like how you treat certain situations in games, and how you handle losses and how you handle wins.”
When Lucas was being recruited, the Jayhawks went on a run to the national championship in the spring of 2012, and he saw a culture that he wanted to be a part of. He then became a part of a veteran team his redshirt year.
“When Kansas was in the national championship, and then the team my redshirt year with Elijah (Johnson), Travis (Releford), Jeff (Withey) and Kevin Young, there was definitely a culture that they created and understood and brought along to us young guys,” Lucas said.
It might have taken a few years, but Lucas thinks that the 2016-17 Jayhawks are the perfect team for him.
“Every team is built differently,” Lucas said. “This team is built perfectly for the way I fit in because those four guards (Mason, Devonte’ Graham, Josh Jackson and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk) are so talented and capable of scoring and doing different things, that if I just go in and worry about the things that I do well, we end up complementing each other very well.”
By the end of his five years, Lucas will have seen five NCAA Tournaments, at least two Sweet 16 appearances and advanced to the Elite Eight once, but his favorite memories as a Jayhawk all happened in the past two seasons.
“My favorite memory would have to be the Oklahoma triple-overtime game,” Lucas said. “It was one of those games where you could not really write up a better situation (Kansas was ranked No. 1, while Oklahoma was No.2 in the nation at the time) and to have the game play out like that was awesome. was just happy to be a part of it and being able to play in all the overtimes was cool.”
In the triple-overtime thriller on January 5, 2016, where the Jayhawks defeated the Sooners, 109-106, Lucas played in every minute of overtime, scoring five points and pulling down eight rebounds. While that game might be his favorite memory as a Jayhawk at Allen Fieldhouse, Lucas enjoyed playing in tough road games almost just as much.
“I think the Oklahoma game (in Norman) last year, and the Kentucky game (in Lexington) this year are up there too,” Lucas said. “Going into another place, especially when they have (ESPN’s) “College GameDay” there and the crowd is hyped all day, it is nice to go in there and get a win.”
Someone who has seen Lucas’ rise through the ranks of the Kansas big men, slowly, but surely, is head coach Bill Self.
“We recruited Landen and thought he could be a rotation player for us, and by the end of his redshirt sophomore season he is starting for us,” Self said. “As a junior, we couldn’t figure out who to play, and by midway through the season he starts and plays great the rest of the year. This year he went into the season knowing he was the starter and to be quite candid, he labored early. After Udoka got hurt, he became our starter again, which is where he deserves to be. He deserves to be starting at Kansas.”
Self, much like West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who called Lucas “the most valuable guy on the team,” has similar views about the senior center.
“The reality of it is, is that he is as important as anyone on our team,” Self said. “He can defend the post, he can rebound the position, he is a good passer and he is extremely bright. I didn’t ever think when we recruited him that if Landen Lucas ever got two fouls in the first half it could be disaster, and now that is how we feel.”
After five years, not a whole lot of people know the Kansas basketball program and what it means to be a Jayhawk more than Lucas.
“I loved being able to be a part of something bigger than each year’s team. After this year’s Kentucky game, seeing all the past players that would text and were so invested in the game shows how much that means,” Lucas said. “It is just so much fun to be a part of that culture; that no matter when you went here or when you played here, everyone is so invested in each season and in each game.”
Wherever Lucas ends up after he graduates in May, he knows that he will never play in another venue as majestic as Allen Fieldhouse or live in a place as special as Lawrence.
“I have heard it is not the same wherever you go,” Lucas said. “Those home games are definitely what I will miss the most.”
Lucas also has strong feelings about the Lawrence community.
“I am going to miss the college feel (of Lawrence). I feel like when we are around here, it is the ultimate college town,” Lucas said. “People are so into basketball here and that makes it fun to be a player for the Jayhawks.”
Whether Landen Lucas ends up becoming the next up-and-coming NBA big man bodying up guys in the low post, or using his MBA to be the next top executive at Nike, Jayhawk nation should be proud to have such a loyal member of the Kansas basketball family who will always have a home in Lawrence.