In what has been a more up and down season than usual for the Jayhawks, Mitch Lightfoot’s improvement has been a resounding bright spot.
Mitch Lightfoot, who may be better known as Mitch “2019 Big 12 Player of the Year” Lightfoot to Inside the Paint listeners, came into the season as a question mark for the Jayhawks. The sophomore big man was expected to get some minutes, but not too many.
However, right before the season started Lightfoot’s role suddenly grew. Freshman Billy Preston became ineligible and would eventually leave the team without playing a minute for Kansas. All of a sudden, Lightfoot was the first big man off the bench and was being asked to play meaningful minutes in every game.
The year started off a bit shaky for Lightfoot. His minutes would go up and down based on the caliber of team the Jayhawks were facing. When he did enter the game he always brought maximum effort, but would often get lost on offense and struggled against stronger big men on defense.
However, the start of conference play and specifically the last five games have brought on a different Lightfoot. Over the last five games, Lightfoot is averaging almost 19 minutes per game, showing how much Bill Self has come to trust him.
Throughout the season, Lightfoot has also developed into the Jayhawks’ best rim protector. He is a willing charge-taker and excels at shot blocking, especially in the weakside help position.
The stats back up Lightfoot’s defensive prowess. Lightfoot has a block percentage of 12.2 percent, which is an estimate of the opponent two-point field goal attempts blocked by a player when he is on the floor. That number is nearly double of the second-closest Jayhawk, Udoka Azubuike, who has a 6.7 percent block percentage on the season.
Lightfoot also has the highest defensive box plus/minus on the team at 8.3. That number is an estimate of the defensive points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player.
The culmination of Lightfoot’s growth came in a win Tuesday night against TCU, when Lightfoot got the start. The move was more likely due to Lagerald Vick’s recent poor play and lack of effort rather than Lightfoot’s steady improvement, but it is telling that Lightfoot got the nod over the other bench options.
Lightfoot didn’t disappoint in the first start of his career. His box score won’t blow you away, scoring only six points, but that doesn’t tell you the whole story. During his 22 minutes on the floor, Lightfoot brought consistent effort and did exactly what the team needed him to do to stay in the game. He protected the rim on defense and helped facilitate the Jayhawks’ offense by setting good screens and getting several good looks up late in the shot clock.
Time will tell whether Lightfoot’s input into the starting lineup is more of a short stint to send a message to Vick or a long-term solution for Self. Either way, it proved that he is a reliable option in big games for the Jayhawks, something that was not the case when the season started.