LAWRENCE – The mask is lightweight and black, with three circular holes for ventilation. There are straps on the back. In medical jargon, the piece of equipment is called a hypoxicator, an elevation training device that simulates running at high altitude.
It is a futuristic piece of equipment, no doubt, and when Carlton Bragg slides the contraption around his head, he can look a little like Tom Hardy’s Bane character from “The Dark Knight Rises.”
In the months before he left home for Kansas, Bragg said he first started working out with the mask. He had seen video clips of LeBron James jogging on a treadmill with his own elevation training mask, and if it was good enough for Cleveland’s biggest star, it was good enough for Bragg, a Cleveland native who earned McDonald’s All-American honors at Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School on the city’s northeast side.
“Going into my high school career, I was always winded,” Bragg says. “I wanted to try something new. Coming into college, I know it’s a big stage.”
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These words came on Sunday afternoon, as Bragg stood inside KU’s Anschutz Sports Pavilion on his first day here on campus. For the previous hour, Bragg and fellow freshman Lagerald Vick had signed autographs on the orientation day of Bill Self’s basketball camp.
Bragg, naturally, was excited to finally arrive at Kansas. The Jayhawks begin practice on Monday in preparation for the World University Games, which begin in July in South Korea, and Bragg’s first summer in Lawrence will offer some rare opportunities. In most years, incoming freshmen have to wait months before suiting up for Kansas in actual basketball game. Bragg’s first game, meanwhile, will come in 15 days, when KU plays the first of two exhibition games against Canada at Kansas City’s Sprint Center on June 23.
“I’m very excited about the trip,” said Bragg, who has recent experience with overseas basketball.
Last year, Bragg traveled to Italy to play in an Adidas Nations event. The trip was a “good experience,” he said, but this summer’s jaunt to South Korea will offer something new: A platform to impress his new coaches. With freshman forward Cheick Diallo, a native of Mali, not eligible to play for the United States — and still waiting to report to KU while finishing up some academic work — Bragg will be the most high-profile newcomer to debut this summer.
Self has likened Bragg, 6-foot-8 forward, to senior Perry Ellis and former KU star Marcus Morris. Bragg, Self says, is a versatile forward with the ability to stretch a defense from the outside and create off the dribble.
“Certainly, he’s one of the more skilled big guys that we’ve signed since we’ve been here,” Self said.
Bragg said the names Ellis and Morris didn’t come up much while Kansas was recruiting him, but he has heard the comparison to Ellis.
“The pick and pop,” Bragg said. “They kept saying how I could shoot the ball just like him.”
Still, there is the question of how Bragg will fit into the current roster composition. The Jayhawks feature four returning players in the frontcourt, including senior Jamari Traylor, another undersized power forward, and Diallo projects to play major minutes alongside Ellis in the paint. With big men Hunter Mickelson and Landen Lucas also in the fold, the competition for reserve minutes in the forecourt could be fierce.
With that in mind, Bragg has been pro-active while beginning the adjustment to the college level. In an effort to build up his stamina and increase his motor, Bragg would strap on the elevation training mask and set the treadmill to a six-minute mile pace. With his supply of oxygen limited, Bragg’s heart would pound and his body would ache.
“When I first started, it was horrible,” Bragg said. “It sucked.”
Soon enough, though, he started noticing progress. He was stronger and faster — and could run for a longer period of time.
Now he has landed at Kansas, and the adjustment and exposure to the college game will continue. Bragg says he’s excited to see how the summer unfolds, with the cycle of practices and exhibitions set to begin. For the moment, as a trip to South Korea beckons, Bragg believes he is ready.
“I just wanted to challenge myself,” Bragg said, “to be better than what I was.”