For now, Frank Mason III is a Sacramento King. Kind of. But not really.
The franchise that drafted the former Kansas all-American in the second round of the 2017 NBA Draft announced earlier this week it is waiving Mason but keeping the 25-year-old point guard on its summer league roster.
The Kings seem to be doing Mason, suddenly a free agent, a favor by taking him with them on their trip to Las Vegas. When they waived him on Independence Day the summer league rosters for the rest of the league were pretty much set, leaving Mason few other options in a short window of time. If the Kings really do intend to play Mason — and that seems to be the case, due to how much respect he earned from the organization over the course of two seasons — other teams will be able to watch him in person in Vegas and gauge their interest in a prospect who was college basketball’s national player of the year just two seasons ago.
In a league abundant in point guards, Mason may not have many suitors. Still, there are some potential employers out there for Mason and other low-cost point guards on the market.
And if you’re a free agent looking for a chance and not one worried about maximizing your money, what better place to cast your eyes than the Los Angeles Lakers? One of the league’s marquee franchises, the Lakers have the bulk of their money tied up in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. And once reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard decides where he wants to sign, the Lakers will have to start filling out a mostly empty roster, with or without Leonard.
As of Friday, the Lakers were tied to all of six players: James, Davis, Kyle Kuzma, Jared Dudley, Troy Daniels and Zach Norvell Jr., an undrafted rookie from Gonzaga whom they signed to a two-way contract. They also could sign second-round draft pick Talen Horton-Tucker, from Iowa State.
Each NBA team has 15 available roster spots, with 13 players active on game days. So the Lakers have some work to do in filling out the rest of their team, particularly at point guard, considering they don’t even have one at this juncture. (Yes, LeBron is essentially a gigantic point guard, but you get it.)
Now, James’ history indicates he’d want a veteran point guard on his team, and Mason isn’t considered a starting level floor general in the NBA, so the Lakers — if they were interested in Mason — wouldn’t be looking at him as someone to play major minutes. But if they are in desperate need of a backup point guard or maybe even a third point guard on the cheap, Mason just might be able to make his case for that job with a strong showing at the Las Vegas Summer League, where the Kings open their schedule Saturday night versus China.
Mason’s statistics and playing opportunities decreased during this past season, his second with the Kings. He went from playing in 52 games and averaging 7.9 points and 2.8 assists in 18.9 minutes as a rookie to appearing in only 38 games and putting up 5.1 points and 2.2 assists in 11.4 minutes in his second year. Mason shot 31-for-86 (36%) from 3-point range as a rookie and 14-for-64 (22%) on 3’s in Year 2.
During the 2018-19 season, Mason played more than 15 minutes in a game just once from January through April, and that came in the Kings’ final game of the season. Mason had 15 points and 1 assist off the bench, while shooting 6-for-13 from the field in what amounted to a meaningless regular season finale.
That’s why the Las Vegas Summer League — the Sacramento Bee reported Mason missed the California Classic earlier this week due to soreness in his right hip — will be so crucial for the former KU star.
Maybe some team’s scouts already like Mason’s bulldog mentality even if they have seen his flaws against real NBA competition. Perhaps other team’s scouts have already written Mason off after he was unable to find consistent minutes with Sacramento.
Either way, Mason will need to make the most of his opportunity with the Kings in Vegas while his agent pitches the idea of signing him to any team willing to listen.
As Mason told The Bee just a week ago, before the Kings cut him loose, he has one objective this summer.
“My job is to get better and focus on what I can control,” he said. “Other than that, it’s all business, so whatever happens happens. I just have to be ready and stay professional.”
Supply and demand will dictate where exactly Mason spends what could be his third season in the NBA. The Lakers aren’t the only team that could still use some depth at point guard.
Atlanta doesn’t have a definitive backup for 2018 lottery pick Trae Young. For now, Goran Dragic is the only true point guard in place for Miami. Technically, Portland doesn’t have a second point guard to play behind star Damian Lillard — though the Blazers can just stagger rotations to use fellow starter C.J. McCollum in that second point guard role.
The Hornets might need a third point guard to put behind Terry Rozier and Mason’s old pal, Devonte’ Graham. The Nets, although they signed free agency’s top point guard this summer, Kyrie Irving, don’t yet have a third option at the position to put behind Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie. Oklahoma City, as well, lacks a third point guard to backup Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schroder. Milwaukee might need some depth at that spot in case Eric Bledsoe and George Hill don’t hold up for the full season.
It’s also important to remember the market is always fluid, especially this time of year, when NBA teams are more eager to make roster reshaping moves in the offseason. A team that doesn’t need someone like Mason now just might be interested in him one transaction later.
For organizations more intrigued by the idea of a younger option at point guard in free agency, Mason has competition — think: Quinn Cook, Tyus Jones, Delon Wright and Trey Burke, for example.
Of course, there still are veteran free agents out there, too — such as Rajon Rondo, Jerryd Bayless, Raymond Felton, Shelvin Mack and Jeremy Lin.
Mason is too dogged to let any of these factors faze him. This is a backed into a corner type of summer for Mason in terms of his NBA future. But given his mental toughness it’s difficult to see it not working out for him eventually.
Even if his route begins in the G League next season, roster spots inevitably open up throughout The Association. Odds stacked against him won’t stop Mason from working toward a spot in the NBA. He’s not the type to flame out after two years.
Some serendipitous timing, thanks to the schedule-makers for both the Kansas men’s basketball team and the NBA, allowed KU’s 2017 National Player of the Year and current Sacramento rookie Frank Mason III to take a courtside seat and watch the Jayhawks defeat Stanford Thursday night.
Seeing as how Mason knew the Jayhawks as well as anyone inside at the new Golden 1 Center not named Bill Self, the point guard slipped on a headset and joined the ESPN2 broadcast to discuss all things Kansas.
Although the Kings are his priority, Mason, averaging 8.6 points and 2.7 assists in 21.1 minutes this month, said he continues to follow the Jayhawks closely.
“I try to keep up with them as much as I can. I search Twitter, and if I can watch the game I definitely do that,” Mason said, before reiterating his Senior Night claim that he would’ve played more than four years for KU if possible. “But I’m always supporting my Jayhawks. I love them to death.”
ESPN’s Sam Farber and P.J. Carlesimo prompted Mason to explain what he misses about Lawrence and his time at Kansas.
“I miss absolutely everything. The amazing fans, my professors, coaches, teammates, the dormitory we live in — we called it a mansion,” Mason joked of McCarthy Hall. “It’s great, man. So I miss everything. And I miss the fans who come through Kansas. I miss playing in the fieldhouse — 16,300 fans every night, they bring unbelievable energy.”
For years to come, of course, Mason’s time with the Jayhawks will be associated with the program’s ongoing Big 12 title streak, currently at 13 years. He felt certain even though he won’t be contributing this season, as Self’s bunch attempts to break college basketball’s all-time conference title streak Kansas shares with UCLA, his former teammates know how much the run of excellence means to so many.
“Every player on the team don’t want to be a part of the team that ends that streak. So I think they’re all aware of that,” Mason said. “They worked really hard during the offseason and they take the responsibility to go out there and get a win every night.”
Asked about Oklahoma freshman phenom Trae Young and how the rest of the Big 12 stacks up this season, Mason wasn’t ready to assume the Jayhawks will make it 14 in a row with ease.
“I think that it’s definitely going to be a challenge. I think Trae is doing a great job over there at OU, and he’s doing more than scoring. He’s assisting the ball really well. They have a fantastic coach over there, too,” Mason added of Lon Kruger, “so I’m looking forward to Big 12 play. I think it’s going to be a really, really fun season.”
The former KU all-American hopes to get back to Allen Fieldhouse over the NBA’s All-Star break and said he is eying KU’s Feb. 17 home date with West Virginia. In the meantime, he’ll continue to enjoy watching his longtime backcourt running mate Devonte’ Graham take on a larger role as a senior.
“He’s running the show, I think he’s doing a fantastic job,” Mason began to say, before Graham dished one of his five first-half assists. “Look at that pass right there. What a pass by Devonte’ Graham.”
His air time couldn’t conclude without the ESPN crew asking Mason for his prediction on how the rest of the KU season will play out.
“That’s a rhetorical question,” Mason replied. “I think we’re going to win it all this year.”
With his team in the midst of a potentially embarrassing drubbing versus an undermanned Los Angeles Lakers squad late Monday night at the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League, former Kansas All-American Frank Mason III got a chance to outshine some of the event’s stars — the more highly regarded first-round picks who went before him in the June draft.
Sacramento’s No. 5 overall pick, De’Aaron Fox tweaked an ankle in the first half, enabling Mason, the 34th pick, to put on a second-half show. Mason nearly helped the Kings rally from a 28-point deficit against L.A. with a game-high 24 points — scoring 20 in the second half. The backup floor general shot 9-for-13 (2-for-3 on 3-pointers) and contributed six assists, five rebounds and two steals in a 95-92 loss.
Predictably humble, Mason downplayed his big night and the comeback that fell short versus a Lakers lineup which did not include Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart or Kyle Kuzma.
“The goal is always to win,” he told reporters afterward. “I’m happy that my team fought pretty hard to make it interesting, but we didn’t come out with the win, so I’m not really happy.”
While Mason’s assertive approach in the second half resembled his senior season at KU, the point guard credited his coaches’ strategy and teammates for getting him open with screens.
“I was pretty much just driving the ball downhill, creating for my teammates and myself,” said Mason, who went 2-for-9 in his first summer exhibition and 2-for-10 in his second outing, leading up to a breakout performance.
The 23-year-old lead guard said his four years of Kansas experience kicked in at some point, and he was able to make a positive impact for his team and get the Kings back in the game. Not that he ever was overly concerned with his slow start in Las Vegas.
“I just made shots in this game,” said Mason, who is now averaging 11.3 points, 3.3 assists and 4.0 rebounds, while shooting .406 from the floor. “The last two games I had pretty good looks; they just didn’t fall.”
Fox’s minor injury set up Mason with more playing time (24 minutes). Instead of subbing in and out, he got to experience a prolonged stay on the court. While Mason admitted that helped him feel comfortable, he also said, “it’s the NBA. No matter when your number is called you’ve got to be ready.”
Even the summer league is a step up for the former Kansas star, which means a new reality: coming off the bench.
“I think I do a pretty good job of accepting my role and giving whatever the team needs from me,” Mason said of entering the league as a backup. “It’s a different feeling, obviously, from the past three years — starting and playing for a lot of minutes throughout the game — to coming here and just getting limited minutes. But I accept my role, whatever it is, and just give my best effort.”
He didn’t enter his latest summer league game expecting a chance to take over, but Mason did just that given the opportunity. The more looks he gets with the Kings, the more the second-rounder will force others around the NBA to take notice.
It wasn’t too long ago that Frank Mason and De’Aaron Fox were battling each other in primetime as the college basketball world watched to see whose team would prevail in a blue blood battle between Kansas and Kentucky.
The two dynamic point guards will now get to resume that clash behind the scenes — potentially for years to come — as teammates with the Sacramento Kings.
For two players who only squared off once, the duo knows each other fairly well. Fox, the No. 5 overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft, revealed during a recent interview with Sacramento media that Mason actually hosted the speedy floor general when he visited the University of Kansas as a high school recruit. Fox opted for a starring role at Kentucky, instead, and when he next saw Mason, the senior outdid the freshman, leading the Jayhawks to a 79-73 win at UK’s Rupp Arena.
Mason went for 21 points, four assists, three rebounds and two steals, while shooting 9-for-18 in a game that featured two of college basketball’s fastest open-court players. On a 5-for-12 night, Fox’s line read: 10 points, two assists, two rebounds, two steals.
“We had a good battle in college. I think it was a really good game. And not only with De’Aaron, I’m looking forward to getting out there and competing against everyone,” Mason said of renewing his matchup with Fox at Kings practices, beginning this week, as the two prepare for their Summer League debuts. “As the point guards of the team, we should always want to compete at a high level and make each other better for the franchise, so that’s what we will do.”
Fox, too, told reporters he looked forward to having Mason as a teammate/challenger.
“It’s going to be different. We played them one time this past year, and now you’re going to see him every day in practice,” Fox said of Mason. “But that’s great for us. We’re going at each other every day in practice and it’s going to do nothing but make us better.”
When Sacramento first added Fox and Mason (second round, 34th pick overall) through the draft, the two were the only point guards on the roster. Although a veteran pick-up was sure to come, the possibility of Mason taking on back-up point guard duties for a young team in full-on rebuild mode seemed like a real possibility. However, the Kings reportedly agreed to a free-agent deal with vet George Hill, who averaged 16.9 points and 4.2 assists this past year with Utah. Hill is so good he might even allow Sacramento to bring Fox along slowly, in a sixth man role, even though the 19-year-old guard is clearly the new face of the franchise.
Mason will be Sacramento’s No. 3 point guard next season, which isn’t a bad gig. Obviously, Mason would prefer a more involved role because he’s that kind of competitor. But he should get his chances. The Kings, because they are so young (outside of free-agent signings Hill and Zach Randolph) are going to lose a lot of games and be blown out in a decent amount of them in the brutal Western Conference. So Mason figures to, at the very least, get his introduction to the real NBA in the fourth quarters of Kings losses during the 2017-18 season.
But Mason also will move up the depth chart any time Hill or Fox are unavailable. And Hill, now 31, has missed 30-plus games in two of the past three seasons. The Kings have a nice insurance policy in the form of college basketball’s reigning national player of the year.
Beginning Friday at the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League, Mason will get to show Sacramento’s staff what he’s made of, as he, Fox and many of the Kings’ young big men take on Josh Jackson and Phoenix. Mason told Sacramento media how he plans to complement his new frontcourt teammates.
“Just being a tough guard who gets my teammates involved,” the 23-year-old guard began, “and I feel like I can get them a lot of good touches, lobs, dump-offs to where they can just get easy baskets and finish.”
On a team mostly comprised of players under the age of 25, summer league, practices and every learning opportunity that comes along will be critical for the team’s development. With Fox and Mason in the mix, a downtrodden franchise has two young men capable of resetting the culture.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Fox said of working with Mason. “They drafted two great young point guards and we’re just gonna make each other better every day.”
On an extensive list of ways his life is about to change now that he has reached the NBA, adjusting to a steady diet of losses has to rank near the top for former Kansas point guard Frank Mason III.
During the reigning National Player of the Year’s four seasons at KU, Mason played for Bill Self-coached teams that averaged 29 victories and 7.3 losses.
His role in those wins propelled the 5-foot-11 Mason to near the top of the second round in this year’s NBA Draft, where Sacramento made him the 34th overall pick. The ultra-competitive Petersburg, Va., native, no doubt, will make the best of it, but winning roughly 30 games a year will continue to be the norm for him in the years ahead.
Playing an 82-game schedule, the Kings have won no more than 38 games in any of the previous 11 seasons — a stretch in which they have lost 50 or more games six times (and 49 twice).
While Sacramento’s front office and coaches obviously were thrilled with their four 2017 blueblood-only draft picks — Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox, North Carolina’s Justin Jackson, Duke’s Harry Giles and Jayhawk Mason — they also were realistic about the state of the franchise at the introductory press conference for the newest Kings.
Head coach Dave Joerger said when he looks at the roster he thinks about how the team will be set up three years from now and how he plans to have the 2017-18 team lay a foundation for the future.
“We’ve got good people and we’ve got good talent to build from,” Joerger said.
Even so, no one expects Sacramento to contend for a playoff berth anytime soon. The Kings very well may end up the worst team in the NBA next season, and that’s because they will most likely be the youngest. As a 23-year-old rookie, Mason is older than six players that project as part of the team’s rotation.
The contracts of veterans Rudy Gay, Tyreke Evans, Darren Collison, Ty Lawson and Ben McLemore officially come off the books when free agency begins this weekend, and it appears the organization, which recently waived 31-year-old Arron Afflalo, is prepared to rebuild around its latest lottery pick, Fox (19 years old). What does the explosive incoming rookie from Kentucky have around him? Fellow newbies Jackson (22), Giles (19) and Mason (23) — and possibly Serbian guard Bogdan Bogdanovic (24) — along with slightly more established second-year players Buddy Hield (23), Malachi Richardson (21), Skal Labissiere (21) and Georgios Papagiannis (19). And don’t forget old head Willie Cauley-Stein (23), grandpa Kosta Koufos (28) and great-grandpa Garrett Temple (31).
All of the challenging seasons ahead for Mason at least should be more tolerable with the knowledge he landed on a team that values him. Sacramento had Mason visit for two pre-draft workouts.
“I think when I first got here for my first workout I was pretty good — could’ve done a lot of things a lot better — but obviously they were impressed by me,” Mason said at the rookies’ introduction. “We got that call that they wanted me to come back for a second workout, I was really excited about that. I came back for the second workout, wasn’t my best again, but, you know, I think I was solid and they were excited about me. And now I’m here.”
Joerger pointed out Mason also showed off his explosiveness after workout No. 2, with “a tremendous dunking show.”
Mason’s new head coach, though, cares much more about what his players do during games. Joerger developed a reputation as a coach who values toughness during his three seasons in Memphis, prior to taking over at Sacramento a year ago.
“I love a coach that’s going to help us get after it, challenge us every day mentally and physically,” Mason told The Sacramento Bee’s Jason Jones. “I’m just excited about the future.”
The future will feel a lot more real once the season begins four months from now. And it won’t be like anything Mason has experienced previously on a basketball court.
Admitted Joerger: “We’re gonna take our lumps, you know what I mean? So let’s do it with guys who have great work ethic and high character and the talent that’ll come out as they grow into it.”
Some serious culture shock awaits Mason in the NBA. But if we know anything about him, it’s that he’s gutsy enough to fight through it and will do his best to help revitalize the Kings, who haven’t finished with a winning record or reached the playoffs since 2006.
The next time the public gets to watch national player of the year and Kansas great Frank Mason III play basketball, odds are it will double as Mason’s chance to prove he deserves a spot in the NBA, by playing in the summer league a few months from now.
His odds of pulling off the leap from college standout to trusted member of an NBA roster wasn’t a subject Mason had time for over the past several months, with his tunnel vision focused on getting the Jayhawks as far as he could in his final NCAA Tournament.
Now that the 23-year-old point guard’s KU playing days are through, he felt willing to look ahead to what’s next in an interview with Grant Hill for NBA TV’s “Inside Stuff,” which aired on Saturday.
“I dreamed of things like these,” Mason told Hill of appearing on the show almost three months ahead of the draft. “I’m just thankful for this opportunity, and it just shows you how much work I’ve put in over the years. And I’m just excited about everything and just ready to get started with this process.”
Mason, who said he didn’t consider his college career “great,” because he didn’t win a national championship, thought he had “a pretty good four years.” While, as Hill brought up in the one-on-one, NBA decision-makers have varying ideas about what kind of player Mason can become professionally, the Petersburg, Va., native envisions finding success at the highest level of basketball.
“I think I’m a really good play-maker,” said Mason, who scored 20.9 points a game as a Kansas senior and dished 5.2 assists. “I can shoot the ball, I can get others involved. I think I’ll just be an overall great teammate and good player.”
On NBA TV, Hill actually got Mason to crack a smile a few times, including when he asked the KU star which of the many great point guards in the league he’s looking forward to facing.
“Everyone’s good players in the NBA,” Mason said. “So I’m looking forward to competing with the best and just getting out there and playing against those guys and having the opportunity to be on the floor with them and competing against them.”
The most recent mock draft at DraftExpress.com projects Mason as the next-to-last pick, 59th overall, a spot currently occupied by San Antonio.
— Watch Mason’s complete interview with Hill below.
Throughout the Kansas basketball team’s second-round NCAA Tournament showdown with Michigan State, it seemed the game would not be decided until the final few possessions. Then, over the course of the last seven minutes, it went from a two-score game to a 90-70 Jayhawks victory.
How, exactly, does that happen?
“It didn’t seem like it,” Kansas senior center Landen Lucas said of the vibe on the court ahead of the final 20-point margin, “and the scoreboard didn’t show it, but as a team we felt pretty confident about what we were doing.”
Essentially, KU’s collective will to advance didn’t falter when the Spartans repeatedly challenged the Midwest’s top seed with runs of their own and answers to Kansas scores for the first 30 or so minutes in Tulsa, Okla.
The Jayhawks (30-4) not only remained steadfast in coach Bill Self’s plan, but also cranked up their intensity for the stretch run. MSU cut the KU lead, which already had poked into double-digit territory three times, to five with 7:16 to play. From there, Kansas outscored the Spartans 21-6, held its foe to 2-for-8 shooting and advanced on to the Sweet 16 by converting eight of its 10 final shots.
Several sequences keyed the win for the Jayhawks and they’re the exact types of plays they’ll have to replicate in bunches Thursday at Sprint Center, in Kansas City, Mo., to move past an even better Big Ten challenger — No. 4 seed Purdue (27-7) — on the path to the Final Four.
The Boilermakers’ personnel obviously differs from the makeup of the MSU roster, particularly when it comes to experience and the paint presence of Purdue’s double-double machine, Caleb Swanigan, and his 7-foot-3 wingspan. But the types of plays Kansas made in crunch time against Michigan State should not be forgotten, because many of them had more to do with effort than matchups.
Here are six concepts and standout moments from KU’s final eight minutes of Round 2 that the Jayhawks need to keep in mind moving forward.
- Opponents can get caught up paying too much attention to stars
Josh Jackson (23 points, 9-for-16 shooting) gave MSU headaches all game, so as the end approached, defenders zeroed in on Jackson even more.
On one possession, the star freshman made a cut from the left wing to the paint, then moved on out to the right wing, while Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham exchanged a hand off on the perimeter. With the Spartans worried about those three stars, backup Lagerald Vick made a hard backdoor cut for the paint and Graham sent a pass toward the hoop for a thunderous alley-oop before Vick’s defender had a shot at reacting and recovering.
- Trust your seniors
Just after MSU made it a five-point game, Mason and Lucas worked a variation of the pick-and-roll to perfection. The big man set a screen for his point guard just after Mason caught a pass on on the left side of the floor. When Lucas’ man took a step too far to help on Mason, Lucas bounded toward the paint and met a lob above the rim for an easy slam.
The two seniors will need to assert themselves on both ends of the floor when games get tight. Their ability to execute will ease tensions and increase KU’s chances of moving on.
- Get it and go
This is an idea these Jayhawks have thoroughly embraced and there’s no need to change it just because the lights are brighter, the competition is stiffer and the score may be close. Mason, Graham and Jackson love throwing the ball ahead for potential numbers every time Kansas takes the ball away or snags an opportunistic defensive board.
When backup big Dwight Coleby came away with a steal and got the ball to Jackson late in the second half, the freshman knew what to do. About four seconds after Coleby secured the turnover, Jackson had zoomed up the the floor in four dribbles for a fast-break layup.
- Embrace the moment
Kansas didn’t miss many shots down the stretch, but when Jackson released an unsuccessful 3-pointer with his team up 10, seldom-utilized backup Coleby secured the offensive rebound to extend the possession. A couple passes later, Graham buried a 3-pointer.
Role players tend to find their way into the spotlight during critical junctures in March. Whether it be Coleby, Vick, Carlton Bragg Jr. or even starter Svi Mykhailiuk, the Jayhawks need their less heralded players to step up when opportunities present themselves late in games. Often that’s the only way to advance.
- This is why you brought Jackson to KU
Accurately, Self will tell you any number of his perimeter players are capable of bursting out and fueling offensive runs that alter the outcomes of games. Mason might be the national player of the year for that very reason. But there is no denying the most talented, potentially dominating presence on the floor wears No. 11.
The NCAA Tournament stage hasn’t looked too big for Jackson — he just took over for stretches versus a MSU program filled with friends and a coach who heavily recruited him to become a Spartan. During the game’s final six minutes, Jackson made two free throws, scored a layup, grabbed a defensive rebound and threw down a vicious one-handed jam after driving in from the top of the key in a half-court set.
Jackson has the competitive drive of Mason but also operates with the advantages of existing in a 6-foot-8, NBA-ready frame. He can carry a team to a Final Four if he needs to.
- Defend like it’s only thing that matters
It will take prolonged defensive focus for the Jayhawks to extend their season from here on out. Lucas explained how they turned a five-point game into a massive gap by the final buzzer against Michigan State.
“We knew that the reason that it was so close was because we weren’t executing the keys that the coaches were talking about: stopping in transition, easy buckets here and there,” Lucas explained. “And as soon as we talked about that and tightened those things up, we knew that we were gonna extend the lead. And we did that, and next thing you know it was pretty out of hand.”
In an NCAA Tournament clash featuring two of college basketball’s most thriving programs, a fleeting moment during a dead ball situation became as memorable as any highlight-reel jam or crucial late-game basket Sunday, in Tulsa, Okla.
Well on his way to going down as one of those transcendent Kansas basketball stars, senior point guard Frank Mason III drove to the basket for a first-half lay-in like he has umpteen times over the course of the past four seasons. On this particular strike, the 5-foot-11 dynamo left his counterpart, Michigan State guard Tum Tum Nairn, in a heap out of bounds.
In the aftermath of the play, Mason remained near the baseline waiting for the game to resume. That irked Nairn’s freshman teammate, Miles Bridges, who stepped chest-to-chest with Mason to let him know about it.
The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Bridges stared down a good eight inches into Mason’s eyes. KU’s uncompromising, 185-pound leader didn’t as much as blink — almost as if to say, “Bridges, I’m Frank Mason.”
Mason plays at an All-American level nearly every time he steps on the court for Kansas, and that’s one of many reasons the Jayhawks advanced to the Sweet 16 with a 90-70 victory over the Spartans. His bravado, though, as seen when the bigger Bridges tried harassing Mason, gives the Jayhawks an edge, as well.
Kansas senior center Landen Lucas said each of Mason’s teammates know they go to battle with a point guard who won’t show any fear, regardless of his stature.
“We’re all one team, one unit. We’re gonna feed off each other. We fed off of him,” Lucas said, describing how Mason’s interaction with Bridges fired up the Jayhawks.
A predictable smile covered Devonte’ Graham’s face when reminded of Bridges’ failed bullying attempt.
“My boy Frank is not going for none of that,” Mason’s backcourt mate said. “He’s not intimidated by anybody. He thinks he can guard LeBron, so nobody’s gonna intimidate him.”
Watching the scene from the bench at the time, backup big man Dwight Coleby said Mason’s cohorts knew he wasn’t about to back down.
“We was hyped. I was watching like, ‘Yeah,’” Coleby recalled, clapping for emphasis. “‘Let’s go. Let’s go.’”
Lucas revealed the Jayhawks heard plenty of trash talk during their second-round victory. No one ever would accuse Tom Izzo of failing to fully prepare his Michigan State basketball players for any game, let alone one in the postseason. So it must’ve been the Spartans’ idea to try and get in the heads of Mason and his KU teammates. And Bridges’ ploy flatlined.
“I think that’s silly if you’re trying to intimidate Frank,” Lucas said, “because that’s not gonna happen very often. Especially from a freshman. We’ve been through this before. We’ve been through a lot of things and that’s the last thing we’re worried about.”
Bill Self’s Kansas teams often are associated with their toughness, and no one on this year’s roster personifies that trait more than Mason.
“I think we all play with a lot of pride. We all believe in each other, and I think it starts with coach,” Mason said when asked about KU’s grit. “He really gets on to us in practice and he make us compete. And you know, it just carries on to the games. And I’m just proud of the way my teammates played and the great job that my coaches did.”
The image of Mason standing up to Bridges was a lasting one for anyone who saw the game, as well as the Petersburg, Va., native himself. KU’s Wooden Award and Naismith Trophy candidate posted a photo of Bridges’ scare tactic on Instagram after the game, dismissing the notion that someone’s chatter would rattle him.
“I’m about action,” Mason wrote, “like a movie.”
Tulsa, Okla. — Kansas center Landen Lucas didn’t realize it at the time, but when he and his young teammates experienced early exits from the NCAA Tournament as underclassmen, the disappointment doubled as a valuable lesson about what it takes to win in March.
Now a fifth-year senior, Lucas played for KU teams that lost to Stanford (2014) and Wichita State (2015) at the very stage of The Big Dance that his Jayhawks find themselves in now, the Round of 32.
Much wiser and accomplished at this stage of his college career, when Lucas reflects on those seasons that came up short of a Sweet 16 berth, he realizes, at the time, the Jayhawks fell into the trap of assuming March Madness success. He said ahead of KU’s Sunday meeting with Michigan State this year’s veterans know it’s better to approach every tournament game as the most important one.
“I think it was obviously an important game, but it wasn’t the most important game,” Lucas shared of the approach that bit KU during his freshman and sophomore seasons. “I think last year put so much on us to make sure that we got past this game (second round) that we did whatever it took. We were meeting as a team outside of the coaches telling us to, just to make sure we had scouting report down, and we’ll do that again this year.”
Now that KU’s veterans know what it’s like to get as far as the Elite Eight, which Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk all accomplished a year ago, Lucas said they understand there is no harm in expending all the energy they have to advance.
“We’re treating this like it’s a championship — like it’s our very last game,” Lucas said of No. 1 seed KU’s showdown with No. 9 Michigan State (20-14). “Because then, as we know last year, you get a couple days, you can regroup, reset a little bit and then go into the next weekend. So we’ve got to treat this like it’s our last game and go out there and really not look ahead at all.”
Two years removed from KU’s second-round loss to Wichita State, Mykhailiuk and Mason said they both have forgotten about that game by now. Mykhailiuk, though, sees some similarities that should help Kansas (29-4) know what to expect at BOK Center versus the Spartans.
“But that (Wichita State group) was a pretty tough team, like Michigan State,” the junior from Ukraine said. “They were a low seed but really good, and that’s the main point about them. They can beat anyone.”
The elder Jayhawks know now what they didn’t when they were younger. Those second-round losses, Lucas said, taught them your mental approach during the NCAA Tournament is as important as anything.
“It’s really what helped us out last year,” Lucas said of KU coming one win away from a Final Four in 2016. “It’s what’s gonna help us out again this year, because we learned from that. At the time there was really nothing against those teams, because those teams didn’t have very many people who had done it before. It was a lot of young guys or transfers or different things. We were all learning together, and that’s the benefit that the guys who have been here for that long period of time have, because we did learn from those experiences.”
Tulsa, Okla. — After missing his first Kansas basketball start of the season due to a suspension at the Big 12 tournament a week ago, star freshman Josh Jackson, whose off-the-court issues have led to outsiders scrutinizing both the guard and the program, Jackson told reporters Thursday he’s ready to put any distractions behind him.
According to his teammates who have been around the 6-foot-8 guard throughout KU’s eight-day break from actual games, Jackson shouldn’t have any problem bouncing back after disappointing himself, the Jayhawks and members of the fan base with his actions.
Jackson hasn’t played in nearly two weeks, but at practices since he served his one-game suspension, senior Landen Lucas said the freshman has proven to be assertive and vocal.
“Trying to be even more of a leader than he already was, and I think that was important for all of us to see, because we knew he felt bad after that last game and we were all disappointed by it,” Lucas said. “But he came out with a whole other level to him, and I’m just excited to see him carry it over into the games.”
The Detroit native and projected top-three pick in this year’s NBA Draft, Jackson will get a chance to prove Lucas right in the NCAA Tournament, beginning Friday evening against UC-Davis (23-12).
Starting junior wing Svi Mykhailiuk expects a great response from Jackson in his postseason debut, and said Jackson will pick up right where he left off, prior to his suspension.
“Definitely, because he’s a great competitor,” Mykhailiuk said. “He’s a winner, and he always wants to play, he always wants to win. I think he’s gonna be really hungry in the game, and he’s gonna show his best.”
KU head coach Bill Self repeatedly has supported Jackson publicly, and did so again on the eve of KU’s tourney run, saying he had no concern about Jackson’s approach to the game moving forward.
“I think Josh is focused. I do,” Self said. “He's a tough-minded individual. I think he's focused. And certainly his role or playing time or whatnot, whatever will only be dictated by what happens between the lines. It won't be dictated by anything else. And I think he's ready to go.”
KU’s senior leader and point guard, Frank Mason III said Jackson has handled lingering off-the-court issues and various allegations well.
“Josh is a great kid. We all love him. We all know he has great experience and things like that,” Mason said. “So we just tell him to focus on the things that he can take care of and that's exactly what he does. And we're just proud of how far he came so far throughout his year, and we're just focused on today and we're not really worried about anything off the court.”
Obviously, Kansas missed Jackson’s athleticism, defense, passing, scoring and rebounding in its Big 12 tournament loss to TCU. Lucas emphasized the importance of the freshman’s presence as the Jayhawks begin what they hope will be a lengthy journey through March Madness.
“We were confident in our team in the game that he missed that we should’ve won, but he just adds so much to this team,” Lucas said, “especially with the four-guard lineup that we like to go with so much. His presence is definitely important to us. He brings a lot of energy during runs and spurts that we really need. He’s a top three, five pick in the NBA, so it’s always nice to have somebody like that on your team.”