Frank Mason III collected so many college postseason accolades last year, he could decorate one of the larger suites at Golden 1 Center. John Wooden award, Oscar Robertson award, James Naismith award. The only thing missing was his name on a peach basket, assuming a few of the antiquated original tools of the game still exist.
During four seasons at Kansas, the Kings rookie was a one-man power play, a point guard who relentlessly attacked the basket, converted 3-pointers, directed a high-powered offense, and used his muscular, 5-foot-11 frame to pester and overpower opponents.
Every practice. Every game. Ever since boyhood.
Who does that these days, except, perhaps, a modern hoops superhero?
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Before Mason landed awkwardly on his right heel in the New Year’s Eve game against the Memphis Grizzlies, resulting in a painful bout of plantar fasciitis, the only injury he ever suffered was a slightly sprained ankle that required a bag of ice and a couple of aspirin, but no down time.
“And we’re talking 15, 16 years,” he said. “That’s what made this situation so frustrating, especially the first few days when I was on crutches. I couldn’t really feel my heel. I thought I would be out a week, maybe two, not seven weeks. Just being away for that many games, you miss a lot.”
Alas, Mason is both a rookie and a mortal.
Since returning Feb. 22, he is playing an accelerated game of catch up. His season resembles that of most first-year point guards, often characterized as frustrating and uneven, even while the career projection remains promising.
Playing the point is not for the feeble of body, and definitely not for the weak of mind. It's all a blur. Besides converting jumpers, finishing at the basket, guarding crafty opponents, remembering offensive sets and defensive schemes, point guards routinely agonize over when to shoot and when to pass. Pass-first lead guards, for the most part, have gone the way of the peach basket, but their successors are still required to lead, make plays, direct an offense.
“Frank reminds me of myself because he is so relentless,” said former Kings guard Bobby Jackson, now one of the team’s scouts. “All day, every day. I came into the league as a (6-foot-3) scoring guard, and that’s why I struggled my first three years. It took me a while to improve my handle, learn how to be more of a playmaker. I had to figure out that sometimes I can’t drive into a crowd of defenders, that it’s better to find an open teammate of pull up (for a jumper).
"He’s going to learn, just like De’Aaron is going to learn. And because Frank was out so long (22 games) in the middle of the season, he’s trying to make things happen when he needs to be more patient and let the offense come to him.”
The rust is noticeable. In 19 minutes Thursday against the Brooklyn Nets, on the second night of a back-to-back, Mason converted 3 of 12 shots and failed to record an assist. Though he had his moments, including a nifty hesitation dribble that froze his defender and created an opening to the basket, he lacked a rhythm, rushed a few jumpers and persisted in driving into a crowded lane – a tendency he displayed early in the season. The NBA is a land of giants, remember. Beware.
“It's something I have to work on,” Mason said, nodding. “Sometimes I want to get all the way to the basket, but I have that short jumper, the floater, so I need to start using those shots.”
Asked how much the seven-week absence slowed his progress, he winces.
“Some, but I got to see a lot of different things from the sidelines. Different ways to attack. Where you should be on defense. When you should help defensively. Where guys want the ball. You can see where guys could have made the extra pass. But since I came back, I’m just thinking out there a lot, and I’ve never played that way. I need to be instinctive, to just play, just be me.”