Mason: 'I Still Have a Lot More to Prove'
Last year’s consensus National Player of the Year, Frank Mason III, was such an unknown commodity in the summer of 2012, that Kansas Assistant Coach Kurtis Townsend discovered the shy teenager while in the process of recruiting a different point guard at an AAU showcase tournament.
Only Mason – a then-three-star recruit ranked No. 131 in the nation on Rivals.com – proved to be the best player in the Lab Vegas Fab 48 at a crowded Southern Nevada gym, stunning onlooking NCAA scouts with the same natural scoring instincts and craftiness that made him the second-leading scorer at Petersburg (Va.) High School.
In fact, were it not for a third-string role as a freshman, the fiery guard – who led the state in scoring as both a junior (27.4 points per game) and senior (27.1) – has no doubt he’d sit atop the school’s all-time list, ahead of legendary Hall of Famer Moses Malone.
"As a freshman, I was good enough to play varsity, (but) Coach didn’t start me or play me as many minutes,” he said. “I think I had 69 total points to where the other seasons, I had 700, 800 points in a season. I’m not saying it in a cocky way or anything – it’s just that if I would’ve been out there, I probably would’ve had the record.”
But before his winding journey would traverse Lawrence, Kan. – where he’d yet again etch his name into the record books – Mason would encounter an unexpected setback.
Or as he now calls it, a blessing in disguise.
The 5-foot-11 guard had signed a letter of intent with Towson University, before falling three credits short of passing a high school government class. The failing grade made him academically ineligible to play collegiate basketball, appearing to dash his Division I – much less NBA – dreams.
With the help of his AAU coaches, Mason enrolled at Massanutten Military Academy – a prep school in Woodstock, Va. – focused on improving his test scores in a post-grad year, while simultaneously leading the basketball team to a 30-4 record and trip to the quarterfinals of the National Prep Championship.
“That changed everything for me,” he said. “It helped me a lot, as a young man and a father, to be more organized, disciplined – just with a lot of things in life. I think it was a great opportunity for me, and I’m just glad I took advantage of it.”
Not long after the promising prospect was back on the summertime AAU circuit with a reopened recruitment, he officially committed to Kansas, spurning offers from no less than four major programs to join a coaching staff that believed he would flourish in the right opportunity.
To say that Mason improved during his four-year Jayhawks tenure would be a massive understatement and a disservice to the amount of work he put in on and off the court.
After averaging 5.5 points and 2.1 assists per game in a reserve role as a freshman, the self-proclaimed “scoring guard” recognized he needed his coaches’ assistance to take over as the full-time floor general. Mason spent hours with the KU staff after practices, meticulously studying game film and learning when to facilitate rather than look for his own shot.
“I wasn’t really verbal out there,” he said. “Playing at the highest level of college, Coach (Bill) Self helped me be more vocal, talk to the guys, put everybody in the right places, and just (become) that leader. (It wasn’t about) just scoring the ball, but actually talking and communicating with guys because there’s a lot more to basketball.”
By the end of his senior campaign, Mason would become the first player in Big 12 history to average over 20 points (20.9) and five assists (5.2) in a single season, while raising his scoring average by 15.4 points per contest from his first to his final season.
“I had different roles each and every year, and senior year, it was more of my team,” he said. “Coach wanted me to be aggressive, and he just keep encouraging me every game.”
From a game-winning pull-up jumper against top-seeded Duke in the Champions Classic on Nov. 15, 2016 to a 26-point, seven-assist and seven-rebound performance against Purdue in the Sweet 16, the Oscar Robertson Trophy honoree proved why he deserved nearly every major collegiate accolade.
In a stacked recruiting class highlighted by Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, Mason ended up leaving the biggest imprint in crimson and blue, finishing his storied career as the most-decorated star in Kansas basketball history and the only player to rank among the top six in both points (1,885) and assists (576).
The consensus All-American, however, would once again assume the role of underdog when it came time for the underclassman-heavy NBA Draft. The 57th recipient of the AP Player of the Year Award, Mason became the first to fall into the second round, where Sacramento pounced on him with the No. 34 pick.
“I was excited, but I was very surprised I went in the second round,” he said. “The only reasons I can think of are my height and age, but Buddy (Hield) was National Player of the Year (in 2016), and he went pick six. But at the end of the day, (even though) I didn’t go as high as I wanted to, it’s a blessing to be picked as one of the top sixty players in the world and be a part of the NBA.”
All Mason has done since is calmly present his NBA-ready game and established winning pedigree.
In his third Summer League game, the Kings rookie erupted for 24 points, six assists, five rebounds and two steals off the bench against the Lakers, showcasing his slick ball-handling and ability to get to the rim and finish through contact.
Although an untimely ankle injury sidelined him in the opening minutes of his fourth and final appearance, Mason averaged 8.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 2.5 assists in 16 minutes per game, proving he could fulfill any type of role with unwavering confidence and a much-needed scoring punch.
The Sacramento draftee was once again proficient in preseason action, averaging 11.6 points per game – second on the team – on 48.8 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from behind the arc. No. 10 scored in double-digits in four of his five appearances, notching 17 points, along with seven rebounds, in a win over the Spurs on Oct. 2.
“(My mindset is) just work hard and believe in yourself,” he said. “Whenever you get out there, just take advantage of the opportunity, stay positive and encourage teammates. It’s bigger than me – I want to win.”
Playing behind veteran George Hill and No. 5 pick De’Aaron Fox to begin the regular season, Mason has chipped in with 5.6 points and 2.1 assists in 13.3 minutes per contest, putting up 11 points on Oct. 29 against Washington, and seven points and a career-high six assists at Detroit on Nov. 4.
Among all rookies who've appeared in at least five games, the Kansas product ranks fifth in assists per 36 minutes (5.8) and sixth in assist percentage (27.3), according to NBA.com.
A diamond in the rough dating back to his eyebrow-raising AAU performances, Mason is on his way to proving he’s a second-round gem for Sacramento.
“I’ve improved in so many areas in life and accomplished so many things, but I’m still not done,” he said. “I’m still hungry and I still have a lot more to prove.”