Wichita State has produced future NBA players like Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker, and Cleanthony Early during its rise to national prominence, but none of them could ever captivate a crowd of 10,506 at Koch Arena quite like Conner Frankamp.
He is the city’s native son, Wichita’s walking bucket. He played to sold-out crowds and became the City League’s career all-time leading scorer in his four years at North High. When he transferred from Kansas to WSU to finish his career as a Shocker, many Wichitans desperately wanted him to be a scoring star.
In that sense, Frankamp never became the player many wanted him to be. He has a career scoring average of 8.5 and has yet to break 20 points in a game.
But to label Frankamp’s career a disappointment would be to misunderstand it.
"I think it would be natural to hope for a little bit more scoring with his track record, but it's not like he has been this total bust," said Eric Bossi, a national basketball analyst. "He's clearly been a very valuable player on a handful of really, really good Wichita State teams. He's turned himself into what they needed him to be."
Brett Barney remembers the hoopla on Twitter when Frankamp was at North -- there was no escaping it every Tuesday and Friday night.
"We would always go on Twitter to see what Conner did that night," said Barney, who played at Maize South. "Even if you weren't looking for it, he was always all over your Twitter feed. There was so much hype around him."
As a sophomore, Frankamp broke the City League single-game scoring record with 52 points. As a junior, he averaged 32.3 points. As a senior, he scored 31.1 points and led North back to the Class 6A tournament. There wasn’t a shot he couldn’t make and a gym he couldn’t sell out.
"I still get goosebumps," North coach Gary Squires said. "I can't explain what it was like to see him do what he did with all of the pressure he had on him on a nightly basis. It really was unbelievable. Every time he would pull up, you could just hear the crowd hold their breathe. It's like everybody wanted to see him make every shot."
This was not only happening in Wichita.
Frankamp became a national sensation and top-50 recruit before his senior season after he led Team USA in scoring and to a gold medal at the 2012 U-17 FIBA Championships. He was also a standout on the summer circuit with KC Pump N' Run.
"He was a scoring machine in high school," Bossi said. "It wasn't a matter of if he could score, it was just a matter of if he was going to score 30 or 40. And he wasn't just doing that in Wichita. He was going out and bagging them up playing against the top competition on the grassroots circuit and then with USA basketball."
And a Wichita legend.
When Frankamp transferred back to Wichita State, Barney, a WSU walk-on, wondered what he would be like in person. After meeting, the two quickly became friends and eventual roommates. Even after years of living together, Barney is still amazed by Frankamp's complete lack of ego.
It's never been about the accolades for Frankamp.
"Conner is one of the most humble people I've ever been around and I feel like not a lot of people know that about him," Barney said. "He's played at all these high levels and gone to so many places, but he never wants to talk about himself. I always have to ask him about it because he never brags about it and I love that about him."
A misconception about Frankamp is that scoring has always been his No. 1 priority.
He understands why. He scored so many points in high school -- 2,295 -- but how many points he scores has never been his barometer of success .
“I’m all about winning, that’s the most important thing to me,” Frankamp said. “I feel like if I had to score 15 or 20, I can do that. But we have other guys on this team that can do that. Here at Wichita State, I’ve never felt like I’ve had to do that. As long as we win, I’m happy.”
Frankamp has been better on the road than at home. WSU coach Gregg Marshall suspects playing with that pressure at Koch Arena has affected his shooting and the numbers back him up: Frankamp's three-point shooting percentage is higher on the road, 44.4 percent to 34.7 in his WSU career.
Frankamp says he is fueled by doubt.
“I use all of it as motivation,” Frankamp said. “I love it when the crowd starts talking to me and I feed off of that. There’s no better feeling than hitting a big bucket and then walking off with a win on their court.”
Frankamp has carved out his role on WSU.
He is the team’s best player in isolation and most reliable ball handler. He sports an outlandish 6.5 assist-to-turnover ratio and the second-lowest turnover percentage in college basketball. He hasn’t missed a free throw (32 for 32) all season and owns the program’s record for consecutive games with a made three-pointer at 40 straight.
But was that enough for a player who was a top-50 recruit and a scoring machine coming out of high school?
“Sure, it’s surprising that a kid like that hasn’t scored it a little better,” Bossi said. “But you never know when evaluating 18-year-old kids how they’re going to translate to the next level.
“The thing that stands out to me about Conner is how he’s accepted his role and done everything he can do to help Wichita State be a better team. Not every top-rated kid like that is going to do that.”
There is a theory on the Wichita State basketball team.
It’s called “Crazy Hair Conner,” a relative to “Untucked Kyrie” and “Hoodie Melo” as nicknames for when NBA players Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony are at their best.
“We always joke on the team that when his hair gets going all crazy and standing up, that’s when he’s at his best,” Barney said. “You can just see the look in his eyes when he gets in that mode.”
Every now and then Frankamp will show a glimpse of his past. He’ll score baskets in a flurry. He’s made important shots for WSU, like the three-pointer down the stretch to win at Baylor, the jumpers in the final minutes to close out Tulane, and even the step-back jumper to trim Cincinnati’s lead to two points last Sunday.
But he has yet to drill a game-winner in the final seconds. Two instantly came to mind for Marshall: the first was a shot against Northern Iowa in 2016 and the second was last Sunday against Cincinnati on Frankamp’s senior day.
“In my head it was ‘Local boy, here we go, make this shot and you’ll go down in history,’” Marshall said. “As soon as he missed that shot, I told him that’s not the last shot he’s going to take. Hopefully if he gets a third one, he’s going to knock it down.”
What he hasn’t done at WSU doesn’t bother Frankamp. He focuses on what he has become: a champion, a father, and a better person.
“When my college career started, I had no idea I would be back here playing in Wichita,” Frankamp said. “I feel like everything happens for a reason and I’m happy that I ended up back here. I’m just happy to be playing basketball. It gets me away from everything else life has to throw at you. I feel like I’m at my second home when I’m on the court.”
Frankamp is reserved and rarely shows his emotions off the court, but his motivation in March is simple: advance WSU to a Sweet 16, something Frankamp has yet to accomplish during his career.
And it won’t matter how many points he scores along the way.
“Even though he doesn’t smile a lot, I think Conner seems to be really happy and content with his career and what he’s accomplished,” Marshall said. “But you can tell, he knows there is more out there for him and for us."