When Kansas and Stanford meet Thursday night at Golden 1 Center, don’t be surprised if Jayhawks coach Bill Self gazes longingly at a familiar 5-foot-11 spectator with soft eyes, a killer crossover, and the confidence to slay Goliath.
But sorry, Bill. Frank Mason III graduated and moved away. He took his talents to Sacramento, where to the surprise of scouts and front office types, he is sticking with his story: He believes he has the talent, athleticism and mentality to be a starting NBA point guard, and approaches every game, every practice, every minute accordingly.
“You can’t convince Frank otherwise,” Self said from his office earlier in the week, “and that’s the way it should be. He’s a competitive little s---. He loves the process of competition, the challenge. ‘I have to beat you out? OK.’ Then he’ll spend the next three months figuring how to make that happen.”
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The 14th-ranked Jayhawks know him well and miss him terribly. His toughness, his quirky sense of humor, his simmering resolve. Unlike many of the league’s one-and-done prospects, Mason enrolled in the four-year plan and accomplished most of his goals. He earned a college degree, took command of an elite program, earned multiple Player of the Year awards and was selected in the NBA draft.
The fact he slid to the Kings at No. 34? Now that ticks him off, and similar to another diminutive former Kings point guard, he wields that chip on his shoulder like both a shield and sword. While no one is saying Mason is the next Isaiah Thomas, no one should ignore the obvious, either. This is that rare second-round pick who can play.
In 23 appearances prior to Tuesday’s Kings-Nets matchup in Brooklyn, the muscular, 190-pound rookie is averaging 8.2 points and 3.1 assists, shooting 40 percent overall and 45.7 percent from 3-point range in 18.9 minutes off the bench. His game-ready presence and steely resolve are equally impressive. He has slumps, as do most rookies, but he doesn’t stay down for long.
After shooting 5 for 29 in a recent three-game stretch, often flummoxed by long, athletic defenders around the rim, he went 3 for 6 in Toronto and provided a career-best 7-for-9, two-block effort in Tuesday’s victory at Philadelphia. His performance against the 76ers could easily serve as an audition tape.
In 22 minutes, he converted a leaning, contested jumper from the left corner; squirted inside for a nifty reverse; drilled a stepback 22-footer; scored on a floater, a driving layup and two more jumpers. Defensively he consistently pressured the Sixers guards, and in one momentum-shifting sequence, chased down J.J. Redick and blocked his layup attempt from behind.
“We miss that toughness,” said Self. “We certainly haven’t had that since Frank and Josh (Jackson) left. Josh was a dog, too.”
Yet for all of Mason’s abilities and prolific high school career, Kansas was the only elite program that recruited him after he spent a year in prep school, and even then, almost as an afterthought.
“We were recruiting like three other point guards,” Self recalled. “My assistant saw Frank play in the auxiliary gym in the Las Vegas (AAU) tournament. He said, ‘You have to watch this guy. He’s better than the guys we’re recruiting.’ We went to a game and the next thing you know, we fell in love with Frank. He became our priority. He was such an easy recruit. All he wanted was three square meals and a warm bed.”
Asked about his enduring affection for his coach and Kansas, Mason, 23, says, matter-of-factly, “they saw a special guy.”
NBA teams passed on Mason for all the same reasons. Or as Self adds, “Every day Frank wakes up, he is going to be 5-11. People always try to find what’s wrong, and when you draft a senior, you see all the warts. He gets into trouble sometimes trying to drive against players with length, who are 7-foot and not 6-8, but he’ll figure it out. I think there’s a lot of people out there who would like to have him as their backup point guard.”
Self recalls Mason as a scoring point guard and bruising defender who was a natural leader, but not a natural playmaker when he arrived in Lawrence. “He did not know how to set people up, make others better,” he said. “He was such a downhill player, driving it, driving, it was hard for guys to stay in front of him. But he became a point guard and got really good at it.”
In contrast to Mason’s forceful on-court demeanor, he is understated, even reticent away from the court. Peeling away his layers will take a few seasons or so of heavy digging, so advises his coach.
“Frank is as vanilla as it gets,” Self continued, with a chuckle. “A terrible interview. Says the same things over and over. ‘My teammates did this. My coaches did that.’ From what the public sees, he is pretty bland. Some of that is the training he got here. His sense of humor is a little different, too, because he’s funny and he doesn’t know he’s funny. He is one of those people who will say or do something that cracks everybody up, keeps them loose, and they can’t figure out why. But what he really wants to do is work. He wants it bad, wants it bad.”
Mason, of course, covets a starting job, and why not? As much as anyone, Self can appreciate that the NBA earth spins in strange ways; two of the Kings’ most disappointing recent lottery picks were busts – and Jayhawks. Thomas Robinson (fifth, 2012) bounced around the league before signing overseas, while Ben McLemore (seventh, 2013) is attempting to kickstart his career with the Memphis Grizzlies.
“But I told him, ‘Frank, I love ya buddy, but you are not the fifth pick,’ ” said the coach, referring to rookie starter De’Aaron Fox, “and you are not making $15 million or whatever it is. All those (lottery picks) are going to get their chance.’ And he’s OK with that. As long as he can compete and is getting minutes, he’s fine.”
For now, anyway.
College basketball doubleheader
Thursday at Golden 1 Center
• Sacramento State (3-8) vs. Portland (5-7), 5:30 p.m.
• No. 14 Kansas (9-2) vs. Stanford (6-6), 30 minutes after conclusion of first game