There was a time when winning the Associated Press Player of the Year guaranteed a prospect a short wait to hear his name called on draft night. Since the award was first handed out in 1961, 51 college basketball players have received the award. Twenty of those players eventually were drafted first overall, while 11 more were selected second or third overall (Jerry Lucas and Bill Bradley were territorial picks in the early 60s). In fact, only seven of the 50 award winners have been selected outside the top 10, with all but two going in the lottery.
Advancements in medical history, statistics and athletic testing have created a shift in the thought that success in college more accurately predicts professional prosperity. With more readily accessible information to analyze, critique and compare players, the award is no longer the same badge of honor once the pre-draft process begins. Five of the last six winners have been drafted outside the top 8; before that it happened six times in the past 50 years.
This year’s winner, Frank Mason III, will add to that trend. The Kansas point guard ran away with the award after averaging 20.9 points and 5.2 assists for a 31-5 Jayhawks team that advanced to the Elite Eight. Mason will go down in Kansas basketball lore, but he’ll have his work cut out for him to join the ranks of Jayhawks to succeed at the next level.
Mason measured 5-foot-11 without shoes at the NBA Draft Combine on Thursday, second shortest among the 66 players in attendance. He also had the third shortest wingspan. Such is life in the NBA, but combining those measurements with his 22-year-old body mean more to franchises than the award he won earlier in the year. The same award players such as Lew Alcindor, Shaquille O’Neal, Anthony Davis, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan and David Robinson won.
But Mason, a top-100 recruit out of Virginia four years ago, knew none of his high school accomplishments mattered when he arrived in Lawrence as a freshman in the same class as Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid.
“I think each level of my life has been the same way. Coming from high school none of that had mattered going into college,” he said. “Now it’s college going into the professional. So I think at each level I handled it pretty well and I’m excited about everything.”
Where Mason lacks in size he makes up for as a poised floor general timely playmaker. He showed as much in his final season at Kansas, and also saw his shooting percentages six points from the floor and nearly nine from beyond the arc. Those tools were on display during the 5-on-5 portion of the combine. Mason finished with eight points and four assists in 22 minutes, finishing a +8 and one of just two players in the game to not log a turnover.
His defense was stout, though he was matched up against Iowa State’s Monte Morris, the fifth shortest prospect at the combine (6’1.25”). He said “the most important thing” was showing teams in attendance that he can defend, and in that regard he succeeded on Thursday.
He was also a pleasant surprise with a 41-inch max vertical, the third highest recorded jump on Thursday. Built more like a running back than a point guard, Mason weighed in at 189 pounds with 4.3 percent body fat.
He’s built similarly to Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas. And while the easy comparison to any undersized point guard will always be the Celtics point guard, Mason said he’s watched more than 2,500 clips of Thomas during the pre-draft process.
“I’m very impressed with him and at his height he’s doing some unbelievable things and he’s just paving the way for smaller guys,” Mason said. “I never want to compare myself to anyone but Isaiah’s a great player. We’re different. I guess we’re both really short and get the job done."
That’s what Mason will attempt to prove over the next month in interviews and workouts. There’s a chance a team drafting at the end of the first round will see Mason as a reliable sparkplug on a second unit. He may become the first AP Player of the Year not drafted in the first round. He could have a similar career path to the latest AP Player of the Year ever drafed, Jameer Nelson, who has carved out a 13-year NBA career after going No. 20 in 2004.
Wherever he lands, Mason has shown enough that his game will stand on its own, collegiate accolades or not.
“As far as basketball and stepping on the court, it’s something I’ve done all my life so I’m very confident when I step on the court,” he said. “I just show them what I can do.”