LAWRENCE, Kan. — Kansas center Landen Lucas has a hideaway down the road in Kansas City at Hollywood Casino. In the offseason and a few times during the season, the fifth-year senior makes the trek to KC to play in Texas hold 'em poker tournaments.
It's an escape from basketball, and he blends in as much as a 6'10", 250-pound man is able to. Lucas enjoys the process of reading people, and the word from regulars is that he is a solid player and keeps to himself. He once finished third in a tournament and won $2,900.
"I can hold my own," he said. "There's a level that I don't cross, and that's those guys who do it for a living."
Patience and self-awareness are skills that have served Lucas well at the poker table and even better on the basketball floor. He's stuck it out at Kansas, biding his time as a fringe rotation player and eventually working his way into the starting lineup for one of the top programs in America.
That's not atypical in the transfer culture of college basketball, but to understand Lucas' journey, you have to start with an 11-year-old Landen Lucas in Japan.
Lucas spent the fifth grade in Fukui, a small town in southern Japan that Lucas describes as "super traditional."
"Most of the people have never even seen an American before," he said.
Lucas grew up in a Japanese culture. He spent the first three years of his life in Japan when his father was playing basketball there professionally. When he moved to Oregon, his mom put him in a Japanese school—he didn't take an English class until the seventh grade. His family moved to Fukui for his fifth-grade year, and he got to learn what life was like as a basketball player in Japan.
"Everything they do, if you commit to something, it's not like fun," Lucas said. "It's to get something out of it."
What Lucas got out of it was an appreciation for team. He was the star player, but he grew to respect the players who sat on the bench.
"Over there, there are kids that wouldn't even play the whole time, and they knew they weren't, but they would be there every day, and they were proud to be on the team," he said. "It wasn't just to do a sport. They were trying just as hard as the star player on the team."
That line of thinking helped Lucas turn the Jayhawks into the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament last year and a trendy pick to win the title in 2017.
Everyone needs stars, and the fifth-ranked Jayhawks have them in spades.
Frank Mason, the senior point guard, is an early favorite for National Player of the Year after hitting the game-winner against Duke and averaging 22.3 points through four games. Junior guard Devonte' Graham is a projected first-rounder in the 2017 NBA draft, according to DraftExpress.
Josh Jackson was the top-ranked player in his recruiting class and is a candidate to be the top pick in the 2017 draft. Sophomore power forward Carlton Bragg is projected to go in the first round of the 2018 draft, per DraftExpress. Even Svi Mykhailiuk, who comes off the bench, is a projected first-rounder.
Lucas is not on mock draft boards, but he makes Kansas better, and it has been statistically proven.
Last season during a midseason slump, KU coach Bill Self invited his four best players into his office. He asked them two questions: Who will make leading scorer Perry Ellis better, and who do they want to start at center—a spot that had been a revolving door to that point in the season.
The unanimous answer: Lucas.
"That wasn't a knock to anybody else," Self said. "It was just his experience. We ran better offense and played better defense in large part due to his intellect."
The Jayhawks were 8.3 points per 100 possessions better against major-conference opponents with Lucas as the starting center as opposed to games when someone else started.
|KU's 2016-17 efficiency vs. major-conference opponents|
|Off. Eff.||Def. Eff.|
|Lucas starts at center||112.6||97.1|
|Someone else starts at center||108.7||101.5|
Defensively, Lucas serves as a rim protector even though he's not a great shot-blocker—he averaged only 0.8 blocks per game last year.
"You can change a shot sometimes more than a heavy shot-blocker, who might block a couple but then foul or not go for some because he knows he can't get the block," Lucas said.
On the offensive end, Lucas does subtle things to make his teammates better.
"It's amazing how many shots he gets for us just running up and setting a fade screen or just doing things that experience teaches you to do," Self said. "They're not plays."
Lucas had an education of KU's offense even before Self recruited him. His dad had him study Self's offense because nobody in college basketball did a better job of teaching big men footwork and how to seal in the post.
"That was back when Cole [Aldrich] was here," Lucas said. "At the time, I had zero intentions and didn't really know about coming to Kansas, especially because I was from the West Coast. All our mindset was the Arizonas and UCLAs. Kansas was that school in the middle of the country. We were just looking at how well the bigs used their bodies, and that's where I learned a lot of the stuff, and I was taking it to my game."
Those traits attracted Self to the big man, and he developed an even deeper appreciation for Lucas once he became a regular part of the rotation.
Last year, he grabbed 15 percent of his team's misses, 18th-best in the country according to kenpom.com, and his success was all about his approach. He notices teammates' tendencies and will position himself for a board as a play is developing. For instance, when he knows a certain play call opens up Graham or Mykhailiuk from the corner, he knows a three-pointer is going up. But if it's Mason or Jackson, he would anticipate a drive.
"Too many people wait for the ball to come off the rim before they start figuring out what their plan is," Lucas said.
KU's uptick in efficiency once Lucas took over as starter had a lot to do with those extra possessions he created. Combining last year's numbers and this season so far, the Jayhawks have scored on 51 of the 76 extra possessions Lucas created—103 points and 1.36 points per possession.
What's unusual about a Lucas offensive rebound is he doesn't instinctively go back up with a shot like most big men. Of those 103 points Kansas scored off a Lucas offensive rebound, he's accounted for less than half the buckets (46 points).
As soon as Lucas grabs a board, KU's shooters can be seen rushing to spot up on the three-point line.
"If you just look at percentages, the best three-point percentages are off offensive rebounds," Lucas said.
The numbers suggest Lucas should have been made a starter much earlier than he was, but the process was complex. There was a reason Lucas did not start last season until game No. 19.
Self had spent the previous two years recruiting over Lucas. For most of his sophomore season, the job belonged to Cliff Alexander, a 5-star recruit who was a projected lottery pick coming into college. Last season, the same scenario played out when Self brought in Cheick Diallo, another 5-star recruit who projected to be a lottery pick.
It had been easy for Lucas to accept a role as a fringe rotation role player as a redshirt freshman when he was behind a transcendent talent in Joel Embiid and a senior in Tarik Black. But trying to crack a rotation when the guys in front of you have a lead simply based on recruiting numbers is a tricky spot.
"When you're playing short times and not really knowing [your role], your mind gets focused on the wrong things," Lucas said. "What can I do in this short amount of time to make an impression or impact? And it ends up going downhill fast and rarely works out."
This is why so many players transfer to another school. The easy thing to do is find another program where playing on the team is immediately available. Lucas saw two players in his class at KU transfer—Rio Adams and Andrew White (now at his third school at Syracuse).
Instead of looking elsewhere, Lucas focused on the long game.
"One thing my dad instilled in me, don't look at plan B's because that will just distract from your plan A," Lucas said. "If you're always worried about what else there is, that takes away from making the thing you're doing work. I didn't want to do that. I put all my focus into it and made sure I made the most of it."
When Self approached Lucas about starting, he told him he needed to focus on playing defense and rebounding. Then he asked Lucas if he wanted the job.
"Hell yeah," Lucas told him.
This season Self has set up a situation where Lucas no longer has to look over his shoulder. Self still went out and landed a big-time prospect in Udoka Azubuike, but Azubuike is 17 and raw. Unlike Diallo and Alexander, who were both in a hurry to get to the NBA, Azubuike is so young that he's not eligible to leave for the 2017 draft and is more willing to wait his turn.
Lucas has embraced Azubuike as his understudy, and it could be why he's already understanding his role better than Alexander and Diallo ever did.
The Jayhawks call Lucas the granddad of the program, and it's not because he's been in Lawrence for so long. "He's got so much wisdom and always knows what to say at the right times," Jackson said. Self said interacting with Lucas is like interacting with a 30-year-old man.
That could explain why the old guy needs to get away from the kids every so often and hit the casinos.
On the court and at the poker table, the old guy knows his place.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball and football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.