New Gophers men’s basketball assistant coach Kimani Young was there to see the big wing player. Marial Shayok could wow in the open court and stay on his opponent like a shadow. Big-program coaches, Young included, were trailing the top-100 recruit on the AAU circuit.
But as the action played out at a late April Nike Elite Youth Basketball event in Hampton, Va., it was an unfamiliar player who caught Young’s eye. The 6-1 guard was surrounded by talent, so much so that he was coming off the bench. Once on the floor, however, he showed he belonged. His quick feet and defensive mentality kept his opponent off balance. Small but sturdy, he held his own when he drove the ball to the hoop. And that shot — beautiful.
The assistant coach’s attention had shifted. This Nate Mason was one of the best players on the court.
“This kid is going to be good,” Young thought.
Now, 21 months later, that thought is playing out on the Williams Arena court. Mason is not having a perfect freshman season — currently, he is in a four-game shooting slump in which he has shot just 23 percent — but he has in the first two-thirds of the season exceeded expectations and quickly become a major contributor. The Gophers will need more flashes from him Saturday against streaking Purdue as they try to win a second consecutive Big Ten game.
“Nate is one of our best players,” coach Richard Pitino raved last month, when he started him in place of struggling senior DeAndre Mathieu for three games. “He needs to be on the court.”
A revelation in nonconference play, Mason’s scoring dipped as the Big Ten competition heated up and as his shot wavered. Mason has scored more than 10 points once in 2015, after finishing 2014 with four consecutive games of 12 or more. His free-throw shooting (64.4 percent) has been a frustration as well. But in the Gophers’ most recent game, Mason helped ice a home win over Nebraska with a three-pointer and clutch free-throws in the final two minutes.
The Georgia native is averaging 9.6 points in 25 minutes a game, and he has the second-most assists on the team. Even in his shooting slump, Mason is the only Gophers player whose offensive rating (110.3 points per 100 possessions) is currently ranked nationally. He also has one of the team’s tightest handles: among the six players who average 20 minutes or more, he has the fewest turnovers, with 23. But his greater value might come on the other side of the ball: Mason swipes 2.2 steals a game, the most of any freshman in the country.
Those statistics put him among the league’s best first-year players. Yet with the Gophers still striving to approach .500 in conference play, Mason’s name has been mostly absent in the Big Ten all-freshman team conversation.
“It motivates me, but I try to pay no attention to it,” said the polite and quiet 19-year-old. “I’m just worried about winning. It’s not about the individual stuff.”
When Mason chose the Gophers, it wasn’t so that he could jump into the lineup instantly — it was because he could come and learn from two veterans in the backcourt.
“That was huge,” he said of his apprenticeship with Mathieu and fellow senior Andre Hollins. “I wanted to come in and play, but I was also a little bit nervous about coming in and just starting right away because I didn’t feel like I was as ready as I was supposed to be.”
Not ready? His coach chuckled.
“That’s probably him being a little bit humble,” Pitino said. “I think he was pretty ready.”
It has been a quick rise. Before Young’s happy accidental run-in with Mason in Virginia, he had never heard of the three-star guard. Mason is from the Atlanta area, a fertile ground for prep basketball talent, and Mason probably shook some suitors when he switched high schools four times, ultimately landing at Arlington Country Day in Jacksonville, Fla., for his senior year.
“He was one of those guys who kind of slipped through the cracks,” Young said.
Still, when Mason’s recruitment solidified, the Gophers’ considered him a steal. Virginia, Kansas State and Memphis all went after him hard, but the Georgia native grabbed an extra pairs of socks and headed north.
Amid the present turbulence, Minnesota is hoping Mason will make a steady climb.
“Nate’s got the ability in my opinion, just basketball-wise, to be one of the better guards in the Big Ten when it’s all said and done,” Pitino said. “We’ve just got to keep developing him.”