Frank Mason III is Kansas’s first consensus National Player of the Year. Sounds kinda weird, huh? This is a program that has featured some of the greatest players in the sport’s history — from Wilt Chamberlain to Paul Pierce — and brings in five-star recruits every year. But no player in school history had accomplished the feat until now.
The closest Kansas has gotten to a consensus National Player of the Year was Danny Manning in 1988. That season he averaged 24.8 points and nine rebounds per game, but won only three of the seven major player of the year awards. So far Mason has won the Naismith, AP, NABC, and Oscar Robertson national player of the year awards with the Wooden and Rupp awards still to be announced. It’s a milestone in Kansas athletics.
Mason arrived at Kansas in 2013 as a member of one of the most stacked recruiting classes in program history. A class that included Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, and Wayne Selden, all five-star recruits. Nobody could have predicted Mason, the least-heralded guy in the six-man class, would leave by far the biggest impact on the program.
“We knew he’d be good, we knew he was competitive. We didn’t probably know that he would mean as much to this program as any kid that I’ve ever coached here,” Kansas coach Bill Self said at Mason’s Senior Night in February.
I saw Mason play for the first time at Kansas’s annual Late Night in the Phog preseason scrimmage in early October 2013. Late Night is always a big deal, with fans from across the state lining up to get their first taste of Kansas basketball in months, though it’s usually easy to get into. But the Wiggins-Selden-Embiid hype drew out many more people than could fit into Allen Fieldhouse.
My group of friends and I skipped class and camped out in front of Allen Fieldhouse all day, and we still weren’t there early enough to get in the building. Once security opened the doors, there was a bumrush. It was like those videos of people running into Walmart on Black Friday. We got left behind and disappointedly returned to our apartment to watch from home.
For most of the scrimmage I — like the fans that had rushed into the arena — was focused on our five-star guys. But at one point in the scrimmage, Mason cut to the basket off an inbound and caught an alley-oop for an easy two-hand slam.
Nearly every point scored at Late Night is a dunk, but it shocked everyone in the room to see this then-unknown 5-foot-11 freshman slam it home like that. That season, Mason reminded me of former Kansas guard Sherron Collins. Both Mason and Collins are undersized but strong, aggressive guards that seem to find ways to score against taller defenders. Mason’s athleticism and confidence impressed me but it was just a flash of potential. I never thought he’d be as good as Collins, one of the greatest guards in program history. If anything I thought he’d be Diet Sherron Collins.
Boy, was I wrong.
Mason is the greatest point guard in Kansas history (sorry Kirk Hinrich). His jersey will one day hang in the rafters of Allen Fieldhouse.
This season Mason averaged 20.9 points, 5.2 assists, and 4.2 rebounds, and shot 47.1 percent from 3. He became the first player in the 14-year-long Bill Self era to average 20 points and the first player in Big 12 conference history to average 20 points and five assists.
This season, Kansas wasn’t particularly deep, with only six players playing over 500 minutes, which opened up the door for Mason to make a leap that not many expected. Mason alone played 36.1 minutes per game, most in Kansas history and sixth in the nation. He averaged 13.7 attempts per game, including 4.8 3s — both career highs. But what made his season so impressive was how well he took his chances. He shot 47.1 percent from 3 and 49 percent from the field, which is easily the best shooting season ever for a Kansas player taking at least 12 shots and four 3s per game.
His season is on par with some of the greatest seasons point guards have had in NCAA history. Since 2000, four other point guards have become the consensus national player of the year: Trey Burke in 2013, Jimmer Fredette in 2011, Jameer Nelson in 2004, and Jay Williams in 2002. And Mason was just as good as they were.
Mason’s season was virtually identical to Williams’s in 2002 and Nelson’s in 2004. But ultimately his sharpshooting is what sets him apart from the other four guards, none of whom shot the ball as well as he did.
Mason’s career now ranks alongside those of names like Chamberlain, Pierce, Manning, and Clyde Lovellette. For a program that breathes and bleeds basketball, somehow a three-star recruit from Petersburg, Virginia, is the first one to come away with college basketball’s most distinguished honor.