The great foot mystery started two weeks ago in Honolulu, an Instagram photo showing Landen Lucas wearing a protective boot on his right foot.
The message boards buzzed in the minutes that followed. What was wrong with KU’s starting center?
Just before stepping on the USS Chafee missile destroyer at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, KU coach Bill Self addressed the concern. Lucas’ right foot was just sore.
“He doesn’t have a stress fracture,” Self said on Nov. 9. “We don’t want it to become one.”
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Ever since then, Lucas — the key piece in KU’s 17-game winning streak last season — hasn’t played like himself.
It continued in KU’s 95-57 victory over UNC Asheville on Friday, a game in which Lucas officially lost his starting spot to freshman Udoka Azubuike.
The senior … just … labored. Every movement seemed to take an extra second, every bump knocking him off an additional step than it did a season ago.
Lucas scored six points, grabbed four rebounds and played 12 minutes, with Self even commenting that Lucas played pretty well.
It still was clear to anyone who watched: A big man already relying on his smarts to make up for a lack of explosiveness was never at full speed, going after loose balls and getting back on defense a step slower than he had previously.
Self, as you’d expect, didn’t make a big deal out of the injury when asked about it. Yes, Lucas has been held out of some drills in practice. And no, Self said he didn’t have the insight on the injury like Lucas or trainer Bill Cowgill would.
But as far as the coach was concerned, the team “dodged a bullet” when it learned of Lucas’ diagnosis.
“We think he’s progressing nicely,” Self said. “I’m not saying that something couldn’t happen, but we don’t foresee a problem with it.”
It’s true that the foot hasn’t been the only problem. Lucas has struggled to adjust to a new emphasis on cleaning up the post, picking up fouls when trying to clear space that he didn’t a year ago.
He also has gotten in his own head at times. Self was furious against Siena when Lucas complained to officials on two consecutive possessions about no-calls on shot attempts instead of getting back on defense.
“I think it’s just a little funk that you go through,” teammate Devonté Graham said. “Something’s not going right, then (you’re) not as energetic or into the game as usual. You get in foul trouble early, then he gets frustrated with himself, just because he made a bad play or got a dumb foul, and now he’s got to sit out.”
The foul trouble came Friday as well, with Lucas picking up a quick second whistle and sprinting over to the bench midway through the first half, ready to be taken out. Self simply waved his hand, telling him he was free to stay in.
Though unspoken, the message was clear: Lucas, as he’s playing now, doesn’t need to be protected from fouls. Self can risk it because Lucas is not as invaluable as he was a year ago.
From a close scan of his play, Lucas looks hurt. Midway through the second half, he battled two UNC Asheville players for a defensive rebound and couldn’t come up with it, the ball eventually trickling out of bounds. A few minutes later, he was bumped in the backcourt by an opposing player, and it took him three steps to regain his balance getting his momentum. Lucas ended up a step late as a rim-protector, which was part of the reason Kevin Vannatta made it all the way to the rim for a layup.
There also were three notable grimaces — one after a foul, one after a layup and one after contact in the lane — where Lucas appeared to be grinding through his ailment.
The stats sure seem to hint something’s not right. Lucas grabbed 26 percent of opponents’ misses last year — a number that ranked in the top 50 nationally — but through six games that number is down to 16 percent.
Same on the other end. His offensive rebounding percentage, which ranked 18th a year ago, has been cut nearly in half from 15 to 9 percent this year.
The reality is this: Azubuike’s game Friday was nice, but come Big 12 season, KU will need Lucas. He provides small details offensively (like a solid fade screen that opened up a Svi Mykhailiuk three in the second half) and defensively (playing behind and walling up well, which means KU doesn’t have to double-team in the post) that are vital when games become more competitive and opponents are more talented.
But to get those intangibles, he has to be more athletic than this.
Self seems encouraged when talking about Lucas’ foot, but it still will be something to watch. Maybe it will get better over time. Maybe Lucas will recover better when KU isn’t playing five games in 11 days.
And maybe, if he continues to labor, Self should even consider sitting him out for extra healing.
The Jayhawks, according to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers, have at least 91-percent win probabilities for each of their six non-conference games over the next month.
November and December isn’t when a healthy Lucas is needed. But those more important games aren’t that far off, either.