As easy as A-C-C
Editor's Note: It’s early in the season but the Bulls’ 2002 draft picks are already paying big dividends.
Once the fiercest of rivals in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the Bulls’ second round draft picks, Roger Mason Jr. and Lonny Baxter, along with first round pick Jay Williams, are now teammates who spent a lot of time sweating, running, shooting and weight-lifting together this summer at the Berto Center in Deerfield.
“I’m here with someone from my hometown,” chirped the 6’8”, 260-pound Baxter, who along with Mason Jr. is originally from Silver Spring, Maryland. “And to be here with Jay Williams, it feels like I’m home already.”
The three saw plenty of one another during their respective college careers and have the utmost respect for each other’s considerable skills.
“Lonny’s a warrior,” says Mason Jr. “He gets the job done, and I know he’ll get the job done at this level because he’s succeeded where everybody thought he wouldn’t at other levels.”
“They both beat me a couple of times,” says Williams of his fellow rookies. “The best thing about Roger is he’s very [dogged]. When Duke played Virginia, we tried to put a lot of different people on him, but he’s very hard to stop.”
“A lot of people question my size,” says Baxter, “but it’s all about my heart.”
Williams, 21, the celebrated 6’2” guard from Duke, was the consensus NCAA Player of the Year and the number two pick overall in the 2002 NBA Draft. He won the Naismith and Wooden Awards, and was named the Associated Press College Basketball Player of the Year. He concluded his Duke career third in assists (644), fifth in steals (235), second in three-point field goals made (313) and led the Blue Devils to a 95-13 record in 108 games played there, including the 2001 NCAA National Championship.
The 6’5”, 199-pound Mason Jr., 22, played at the University of Virginia. As a sophomore and junior, he led the Cavaliers in total points. And in all three of his collegiate seasons, he led the team in free-throw shooting, setting a school record, with a career 86.9 percentage from the charity stripe. He also played both backcourt positions at Virginia.
Mason Jr., who was picked 30th, and Baxter, chosen 44th in the Draft’s second round, have known each other since junior high, when they played pickup games in the neighborhood and later competed on different AAU teams in the Washington, D.C. area.
They both went to China last summer with the U.S. World University team and played against fellow rookie Yao Ming in the semifinal game. (“He’s a presence,” says Mason Jr. of Yao. “He’s agile. I think he’s a great player.”)
Roger’s college coach has only good things to say about the player he says performs best in big game situations. “Roger’s a tremendous person– a class guy,” says Virginia’s men’s Head Basketball Coach Pete Gillen. “He’s one of the top student-athletes I’ve been fortunate to coach.” [Mason Jr. majored in urban planning and intends to finish his degree during the offseason]. “In addition,” says Coach Gillen, “Roger helped us win 56 games over three years and go to postseason play each time.”
Mason Jr. can’t wait to make his debut in a Bulls uniform: “I’m confident we’re going to progress as a unit and great things are going to happen here in Chicago.”
“Roger’s personality, demeanor and class is very similar to John Paxson’s,” says the coach. “[The bottom line is,] Roger’s a winner. He’ll be a great representative of the Chicago Bulls both on and off the court.”
In addition, the newest Bull has some hidden talents, as well. Though Mason Jr., the oldest of five children, always excelled at sports– he led his high school basketball team to the Washington, D.C. city championship his junior year, played football his freshman year and ran track for three years– started playing the piano at age nine. As a freshman at Virginia, Roger played a duet during Midnight Madness activities with UVA hoops fan and recording artist Bruce Hornsby, who’s not a bad keyboard player himself.
“We played a little jazz,” says Roger, who added that the super-talented Hornsby “made me sound good.” And, last season, before a nationally televised game against Rutgers, Fox Sports asked Roger to record a piano introduction for their broadcast.
His outgoing personality probably helped calm any nerves. When asked to describe himself, he says he likes people, interacting with the guys on the team and getting to know different personalities and cultures.
Another important fact about this newest Bull: When Mason Jr. arrived at Virginia, he insisted that the “Jr.” always appear after his name. This was to honor his father, a physician who passed away due to kidney disease when he was 11. Several years after his father’s passing, his mother Marsha married former Washington Redskins standout Otis Wonsley. Both his mom and stepdad have offered advice to Roger, who decided to leave school one year shy of graduation to make the jump to the NBA.
“My mom said to follow my heart. She knows I’ll get my degree. She’s invested a lot in me, so I’m not going to let her down, but she understands that playing the NBA is a dream of mine.”
His stepdad, a former running back and kick returner, advises him on the business end of things. “He knows that hard work is what makes you a better player, so he always encourages me to work as hard as I can.”
Bulls Coach Bill Cartwright is hoping that Mason Jr. will turn out to be another pick like last year’s top second-round pick, Trenton Hassell, who became a starter for the Bulls.
“He’s a terrific shooter, a terrific competitor and a tough defender so we’re really fortunate that a lot of teams passed on Roger and we were able to get him at number 30,” proclaims Cartwright.
Roger’s even happier than Cartwright that he’s a Bull, and hopes his performance in Chicago will send a message to those who didn’t pick him earlier in the draft.
“I was told I could have gone anywhere from 14 to 31,” he explains. “Four or five years from now, I want people to say that they made a mistake by drafting someone else.”
Bulls Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations, Jerry Krause, is passionate in his praise of this year’s draft picks.
“The three youngsters we got are all the same kind of people: They’re all tough, they’re all smart, they’re all dedicated and they’re all winners.” The third rookie in the group, Baxter, who majored in criminal justice, said there’s no other place he’d rather be than right here in Chicago.
“It’s an honor to be here. I’m glad the Bulls chose me,” Baxter announced at the beginning of the summer, when the three first met the media in Chicago. Those who know him often describe Baxter as a quiet, soft-spoken guy. Moreover, the phrase “hard-working” is the most common one associated with the big man.
Jay Williams says he’s glad to have former ACC foes Lonny Baxter and Roger Mason Jr. on his side now.
“Lonny’s a beast down low,” says Mason Jr. of his friend and new teammate. “He always works hard.”
Baxter was voted the Most Valuable Player of Maryland’s NCAA Regional in each of the past two seasons, averaging 15.2 points and 8.2 rebounds last season. He joined his more flamboyant teammate, Juan Dixon, as the highest-scoring tandem ever to win a NCAA Championship, and finished his own career with 107 victories in a Terrapins uniform.
“A lot of people question my size but it’s all about my heart,” says Lonny. “I give all I got every night on the court.” Coach Cartwright agrees. “Lonny’s a hard worker, a banger, a rebounder. He comes from a winning system– he knows how to play– and win.”
While the quiet Baxter won’t brag about himself, Gary Williams is happy to lay it on the line.
“Lonny’s strength is his durability and toughness, and he has a great touch around the basket. He also knows how to win,” Williams says. “But I’m sure people will look at him and question how well can he shoot from the perimeter. Like most players his size, like Karl Malone, [good] outside shooting can come with time. If he had to become tough or had to learn how to run, that would be different. However, Lonny already has those things. Because of his work ethic, I have no doubt that his outside shooting will develop and he will become a very solid NBA player for a very long time.”
This ACC reunion looks promising for Windy City hoop fans and the Chicago Bulls. “I’m confident we’re going to progress as a unit and great things are going to happen here in Chicago,” predicts Mason Jr. “We’re young, but the coaches here do a very good job of teaching and I’m looking forward to getting better and becoming a great basketball player for Chicago and the Bulls.”
- by Anne Stein