Bill Self cradled a microphone in his right hand, looking out into a sea of young faces. It was an afternoon in June, and Self was finishing up a short speech to a couple hundred kids at his Kansas basketball camp.
But first, the Kansas coach had a question:
“Who do you think the most athletic player on our team is?” Self asked, looking back toward his team, lined up near midcourt.
A moment later, Self began to name off players.
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“Who thinks its Wayne Selden?” he said.
“Who thinks its Jamari Traylor?”
“Who thinks its Perry Ellis?”
Each time Self called out a name, a few dozen hands would shoot into the air. But this was just a setup, of course, a ruse for the campers, something Self had planned out beforehand. Finally, Self called out a final name.
“Frank,” Self said.
Self summoned sophomore guard Frank Mason to the front, provided a short cue, and then stepped aside for a rather dizzying display of tumbling. Mason, if you can believe this, began to reel off a succession of back handsprings across the floor inside the Horejsi Center — and then he kept going.
“I think Frank is the most athletic player on our team,” Self said.
So Mason’s flip game is not necessarily a new development. He pulled off a couple of standing back flips during an open practice before the Jayhawks’ NCAA Tournament games in March. But here it was again, a reminder of Mason’s natural explosiveness.
“I don’t really think much of it,” Mason said. “It’s just something I’ve always done. It’s just easy to do.”
Before we go any further, a little background: Mason never had any formal gymnastics training or anything like that. His tumbling skills are self-taught. Growing up in Petersburg, Va., Mason simply wanted to try to see if he could do it. So he and some friends would mess around with back flips — sometimes using their hands, sometimes not.
“I’ve been doing it since I was like 5 or 6 years old,” Mason said.
“I think it’s easier with no hands. But at a younger age, it’s easier with hands.”
For now, Mason’s athleticism makes for a nice act for a gym full of basketball campers. But as he enters his second year at Kansas, Mason would like to be known for other reasons — like being Kansas’ starting point guard.
Mason won’t say this, of course. He is much more political when the subject comes up, careful to stay humble and team-oriented. Before he talks about himself, he mentions fellow sophomore Conner Frankamp and incoming freshman Devonte’ Graham, two players that can also play the point guard position. But with the exit of junior Naadir Tharpe, this much is apparent: Mason will be in position to earn substantial minutes in the backcourt.
“I think we have two good point guards in Conner and Devonte’,” Mason says, “and we also have me, and we’ll compete every day in practice and make each other better.”
Mason averaged 5.5 points in 16.2 minutes per game during his freshman season. He started three games during the non-conference season, and was a key component in an early-season victory over Duke at the Champions Classic in Chicago.
But he often looked like … well, a freshman. He shot 33 percent from three-point range, and at times he looked more comfortable attacking the basket than he did facilitating offense for others. Not surprisingly, these are two areas in which Mason would like to improve this summer.
“I’m just trying to get a better feel for the game, watch more film and just get better at the things I wasn’t pretty good at last year,” Mason says.
High on the list: Shooting. Earlier this summer, Kansas assistant Kurtis Townsend noticed that Mason was using too much palm in his shooting stroke. Instead of shooting the ball with his fingertips, the ball was often resting on his palm. To Mason, it felt normal. It was something he had always done. But he’s hopeful the slight tweak will help him be more consistent from the outside.
“I’ve just been working on getting a little space under (the ball) and getting it under my finger tips,” Mason said. “It just gives you a better feel of releasing the ball. If you shoot it off your palm, it can just go anywhere.”
The rest of Mason’s offseason checklist is close to what you would expect: He wants to be in better shape; he wants to work on his ballhandling; he wants to learn how to make his teammates better.
In short, Mason wants to work on being a point guard.
“Little things,” he says.
The little things, however, don’t include his flip game. That comes easy. The soft-spoken Mason isn’t one to show off too much, so don’t expect to see the flips after any regular-season victories. But if the Jayhawks make some noise in March, he might make an exception.
“I’ll do 20 after a national championship,” Mason said.