Kings rookie Frank Mason III is the second-round pick, the player who won multiple NCAA awards but arrived in Sacramento without all the pomp, circumstance and pre-draft hype associated with first-round choice De’Aaron Fox.
Not a problem. At 23, Mason is older and presumably wiser than most rookies. He is soft spoken and somewhat reserved, inclined to quietly observe and analyze, content to blend into the background.
And then he steps onto the court and immediately picks up his game. He is fast and fun, and fearless despite underwhelming size. In his NBA preseason debut Monday against the San Antonio Spurs, the Kansas graduate led the Kings in points (17) and rebounds (six), contributed a heavy dose of energy and enthusiasm, and afterward, was praised by one of the veterans for his poise and playmaking abilities.
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“Very fun to watch,” Kosta Koufos said. “Frank and D-Fox did a heck of a job running the show when they were in. Very aggressive with the ball. And you want the point guard to have that stop-and-go action that they both have, and they are phenomenal athletes. They’re young, but at the same time, they are very efficient.”
Fox, the former Kentucky standout appropriately nicknamed “Swipa,” swiped passes, ran the floor, exploded past defenders for nifty layups, and other times, exploited his opponents with a confounding, change-of-pace dribble.
On a night when many fans craved a diversion – one day after the horrific shooting in Las Vegas – the new-look Kings came through. A discernible, appreciative buzz made its way around the building, particularly any time one of the youngsters made a play.
Skal Labissiere, Buddy Hield, Bogdan “Bogi” Bogdanovic, Georgios Papagiannis all had their moments as well after coach Dave Joerger decided to open the game with his veterans, then essentially gave them the rest of the night off.
The fact Mason led the Kings in points and rebounds comes as only a mild surprise. Four years playing for the Kansas Jayhawks, one of the nation’s elite major college programs, has inherent benefits. Top competition. NCAA Tournament appearances guaranteed. Exceptional coaching.
“Frank is more ready to play than most rookies,” Kings general manager Vlade Divac said. “I was really surprised that he was available for us (34th overall pick). We thought he was going to be taken in the first round. Obviously, the NBA is different, and it’s going to take some time. But we like what we see.”
In contrast to most of today’s draft picks who dump the textbooks at the first opportunity, Mason was a genuine, honest-to-goodness student-athlete. He stayed in school to earn a degree, develop a more consistent jump shot and improve his ability to finish at the rim – the latter no small issue. Though a muscular 190 pounds, at 5-foot-11, his lack of size is an obvious disadvantage.
On a few occasions against the Spurs, Mason penetrated and found himself smothered by long-limbed defenders, leaving him without a passing angle or a lane to the basket.
“He’s just trying to gain some experience and learn the tricks of the game, of reading pick and rolls,” Joerger said. “I think we can make some adjustments and try to help him when he gets very small in pick and rolls. They jump him, and it’s very difficult with his size. All of a sudden the ball gets stuck, and the defense starts flying around. So we can help him not get into those situations. Also, if they hard show, or they trap, we just advance the ball and try to make the ball go faster than the defense can move.”
Joerger’s desire for the Kings to play uptempo this season – and he was not particularly pleased by the pace against the Spurs – also works to Mason’s favor. Though not possessed with a sprinter’s speed, a la Fox, the Petersburg, Va., native is fast and athletic, and an aggressive, willing defender who flourished in Bill Self’s fast-paced system in Lawrence.
On a Jayhawks team that included Suns first-round pick Josh Jackson, Mason averaged 20.1 points and 5.1 assists his senior season, and was rewarded with the Naismith, Associated Press, Sporting News, USA Today and NABC Player of the Year awards.
At the NBA level, of course, he will have to adjust to a new role, and as he acknowledges, to longer, quicker opponents. “I’ve been working at practice at getting in the paint and keeping my dribble alive,” he said. “Sometimes I’ve been getting in the lane, sort of jumping, and not having an outlet to pass it. The lack of size, a little bit. But it’s more on me. That’s something I’ve got to get better at.”
He wasn’t satisfied with his one assist, either. But it was a start, and it was a victory, in a season where wins figure to be few and far between. Start with that. “It’s about our young players getting better,” added Divac. “Let’s just see what we have.”
How they compare
Key numbers for Kings rookie point guards De’Aaron Fox and Frank Mason in Monday’s preseason opener against the Spurs: