It is roughly 10 miles from the center of Eudora, Kan., to the front doors of Allen Fieldhouse, a quiet drive down Kansas Highway 10 that cuts through a swath of farmland and runs parallel to the snaking Kansas River.
By now, Mitchell Ballock knows this drive by heart, every sign and curve and detail along the way. He has been making this trip for pretty much his whole life. But it’s been happening more often lately, ever since Kansas coach Bill Self called last summer and offered him a scholarship to play basketball at the University of Kansas.
The phone call came on a Monday last August, just weeks before Ballock began his sophomore year at Eudora High School. In the days afterward, the whole town buzzed with excitement.
Close to 11 months later, Ballock stood inside the gymnasium at Drive 5 Sports on Wednesday night in Overland Park. He had just helped his Run GMC summer team to a victory on the opening night of the Jayhawk Summer Finale. He had performed in front of a slew of college coaches, including KU assistant Jerrance Howard and K-State head coach Bruce Weber.
In the year since picking up a Kansas scholarship offer, Ballock has been pursued by a handful of other major programs.Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have offered. So has Iowa State and Nebraska — though much of the Iowa State interest came before Fred Hoiberg left for the Chicago Bulls. But if there remains a perception that Ballock is destined to wind up at Kansas, playing college basketball just 10 miles from his hometown, Ballock has continually attempted to quash it.
“I have a good relationship with them,” Ballock says of the Kansas staff. “But then, I have a lot of good relationships with all the coaches. If that’s the best fit for me, then I’ll go ahead and take it. But if somewhere else is the best fit for me, I’ll go ahead and take that.”
Ballock cautions that he has plenty of time left in his recruitment. He has no formal process laid out. He says he’ll try to take some unofficial visits to campuses in the next year, but that’s about it. He’s still weeks from entering his junior year of high school. Indeed, he has plenty of time.
But spend a night inside a gym with Ballock, and you can start to see what all the fuss is about. The size. The skill-set. The basketball IQ.
Ballock is a 6-foot-4 guard, rated as the nation’s 33rd-best prospect in the class of 2017, according to Rivals.com. He displays a smooth and efficient left-handed stroke. He has been dunking since the sixth grade. And he possesses a work ethic that his AAU coach, L.J. Goolsby, compares to two former Kansas guards: Tyrel Reed and Conner Frankamp.
“The work ethic is totally similar,” says Goolsby, who also coached Reed and Frankamp at the grassroots level. “But the games are totally different. He’s kind of got a mixture of Conner and Tyrel. The height of Tyrel; a little bit of the ballhandling like Conner. (He) shoots it like both of them.”
Ballock’s reputation as an elite-level shooter was cemented, in part, during a trip last summer to Steph Curry’s camp in the Bay Area. Ballock was recognized as the top shooter at the elite camp, and ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, a close observer of the Kansas program, took notice.
“Kansas fans, I hate to get you too excited,” Fraschilla tweeted after the camp, “but … Eudora soph, Mitch (Ballock) put on a shooting show at @StephenCurry30 Select Camp. NBA range.”
Ballock was slowed this summer by a broken hand, suffered in early June. But he returned earlier this month, playing the last two weekends for Run GMC in the Under Armour summer circuit.
“He’s become more of a playmaker this summer,” Goolsby said. “Obviously, injuries have slowed him down a little bit. But he’s finally getting healthy again.”
Goolsby believes Ballock can be a combo guard at the next level. Ballock says he sees himself as neither a wing nor a shooting guard — “just a guard,” he says.
For now, Ballock is being methodical about his college decision. No need to move too fast. Still, it’s hard to ignore the KU connections. Ballock is AAU teammates and friends with Justin Roberts, the son of KU assistant Norm Roberts. Ballock has been a regular at KU games over the last two years. And his older brother, Andrew, plays college basketball for former KU guard Jeff Boschee at Missouri Southern.
Perhaps Kansas will be the best place for him, Ballock says. But for now, he’s just trying to sort through all the options.
“I’m not really in a rush to decide,” Ballock said. “I’m just kind of feeling it out and seeing what the best situation for me is.”