LAWRENCE, Kan. — Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend found himself in a back gym at the Adidas Fab 48 in the summer of 2012 in Las Vegas to watch current USC point guard Jordan McLaughlin. Only Townsend got distracted by a little guard dribbling circles around everyone else, including McLaughlin.
That night he called Ty White, the coach of the guard he'd never heard of.
Hey, that little kid, the kid with the braids, does he always play like that?
Coach, White responded, every day.
"He had a toughness about him that everybody sees now," Townsend said of Frank Mason, the sophomore point guard who coaches say is the Jayhawks' MVP.
White went on to tell Townsend that Mason had signed at Towson his senior year of high school. "Towson?" Townsend remembers saying. "He's way better than that."
Then came the news that ended up saving KU's point guard problem. Mason was never able to go to Towson, because he failed a government class his senior year of high school and did not qualify. He was headed to prep school for a year and was back on the summer circuit with a reopened recruitment.
But here's the thing about recruiting for Kansas—you don't have to look for the hidden gems, because more often than not you can get the sure things.
Over the past five years, the Jayhawks have had eight players drafted in the first round of the NBA draft—all in the lottery, too. In the last three recruiting classes, Bill Self has signed five McDonald's All-Americans. At least one at every position on the floor except...point guard.
|KU's McDonald's All-Americans Since 2012|
|Kelly Oubre||Small forward|
|Andrew Wiggins||Small forward|
|Wayne Selden||Shooting guard|
|Perry Ellis||Power forward|
Since Kansas reached the national championship game in 2012 in point guard Tyshawn Taylor's senior year, finding a suitable replacement has been what's kept Self's club from getting back.
So Townsend wasn't above looking under a rock for the position that eluded KU's coaches on the recruiting trail, but he wanted to make sure what he had just seen wasn't a tease.
"I hate just seeing a kid once," he said. "Hate it. So I said, 'What time do you play tomorrow?'"
Townsend extended his stay in Vegas and went the next two days to watch Mason, and he played the exact same way.
"If he's this good," Townsend told Self, "he's better than anybody we're recruiting."
Mason never played point guard until he arrived at Kansas. He called himself a "scoring guard," and he backed up the title. He averaged 25 points per game in his senior year at Petersburg High School in Virginia, and he scored 1,901 points over his career, second only to legendary big man Moses Malone at the school, per KUsports.com.
Malone watched Mason lose the state championship game his senior season, but he was so impressed with his ability that when Townsend ran into Malone this summer at a golf tournament, he told the coach, "I don't know why nobody knew about him."
White, his grassroots coach with Team Loaded, was dumbfounded as well.
"Frank has always been able to do what he wanted without much resistance on a basketball court," he said.
The nuances of the point guard position, however, were unbeknownst to him. When he arrived at KU as a freshman, Self had a true point guard in Naadir Tharpe who allowed Mason to just play the role he'd always played as an attacking guard.
Mason was like a relief pitcher who comes out throwing gas. When he came off the bench last year for the Jayhawks, his main priority was getting to the rim.
"I'll be candid with you, I was thinking that Frank could have been a starter last year as a freshman, but looking back in hindsight, it would have been too much in fast forward for him," Self told Bleacher Report. "I don't know that he would admit to this, but I think he was a little bit overwhelmed by really understanding that there's a lot more to ball than just going and making a play."
Tharpe was also a friend of Mason's, and Mason's father said he believes his son didn't want to step on his buddy's toes. Tharpe was a junior, and he had paid his dues his first two years in the program as a backup.
"I think he could have pushed harder than what he did," Frank Mason Jr. said.
"I love Naadir, but he didn't help him," Townsend said. "He didn't pull him aside. He needed to be under a guy like (KU's all-time assist leader) Aaron Miles for a year that would say, 'No young guy, this is how you do it.'"
Last May, the roadblock was removed. An off-the-court incident led to Tharpe's decision to transfer—he eventually opted to leave school behind altogether and go play professionally in the NBA D-League. Knowing that he was the "next guy up," Mason went to KU's coaches this summer and made a request.
"Teach me how to be a point guard," he told the coaches, "because I don't know."
Mason would sit in Townsend's office and the coach would show him a play that Kansas runs.
"See here, all you're doing is looking for your shot," Townsend would tell him. "As a point guard, do you know what Cliff (Alexander)'s supposed to do on this play?"
"Nah," Mason told him. "I just know I go here and cut over here."
"You've got to know where everybody goes because you've got to direct them," Townsend said. "If he's not going in the right spot, 'Cliff, get over here.' If he's starting on the wrong side or in the wrong spot, that's your job. It's your job."
Mason kept asking questions.
Townsend told him that the best point guard he ever coached was Jason Kidd, and Mason wanted to know what made him so good.
"I said because he made those guys that weren't that good better by getting them the ball right where they knew they needed it," Townsend said. "He knew what their strengths and weaknesses were. If they couldn't do anything on this side of the floor, he ain't getting the ball over there."
Understanding where and when to pass his teammates the ball is where Mason has grown the most as a sophomore. Ask him what's important about being a point guard, and he almost regurgitates Townsend's description of Kidd word for word.
Townsend has told him a good point guard has an assist-to-turnover ratio around 2.8; Mason is at 2.1 and it drives him crazy.
"What it's made him do, he used to take chances throwing the ball in the post," Townsend said. "Now if he knows a guy can't get it, he ain't throwing it where Coach will get on him, 'get the ball inside,' but he's conscious about not turning it over. When you're the scoring point guard, possessions didn't matter."
Mason is so confident now that he knows the right spots that he'll call a teammate out if he screws up what should have been an assist.
Three weeks ago late in a game at Texas Tech, Mason threw a perfect alley-oop pass to Alexander, only to watch the big man kind of stumble and not get to the ball.
"That was a turnover to me, my first turnover," said Mason, who had eight assists and just the one turnover that night. "So I was kind of heated about that. I said something to him."
The fact that Mason said anything is another major development. He's so quiet and reserved, even around his family, that his father says, "If something's bothering him, I wouldn't know."
Townsend could show Mason the right way to play the position. He could fix his shot. (That was also transformed this summer, as Townsend moved Mason's guide hand from above the ball to the side, and Mason's three-point accuracy has gone from 32.7 percent as a freshman to 43.0 percent this year.)
But for Mason to really be a point guard, he needed to trust his teammates, and that's something he had to figure out on his own.
That moment came in KU's most embarrassing game this season—the 32-point loss to Kentucky at the Champions Classic.
Mason repeatedly over-penetrated that night and went 1-of-10 from the field, had three of his shots blocked and did not register one assist.
"I should get in the lane and make the defense collapse and get guys easier shots," he said. "I think early in the year, I was just getting in the lane and looking for my shot first, where it shouldn't be that way."
Mason hasn't had an assist-less game since.
"Frank's a guy who really doesn't trust a lot of people," White said. "But once he trusts you, he'll go to war for you, literally."
The Jayhawks, who have already clinched a share of their 11th straight Big 12 title, are 23-6 and could win the title outright with a victory Tuesday against West Virginia. There is no chance they'd be in that position without Mason.
He had a stretch of 21 straight games scoring in double figures that ended on Feb. 14 at Baylor, a game in which he had eight assists. He is the team's second-leading scorer at 12.1 points per game, and he leads the Jayhawks in assists (4.3 per game) and steals (1.4 per game).
"I think he's our most valuable player," Self said. "He's a model of consistency. He's as good a perimeter defender as we have. And he's still figuring it out. He can have bad nights just like anybody can, but when you talk about on a team that's been good for the most part all year long, but within the good has been a lot of inconsistencies, he's been the most consistent player by far."
When Townsend first told Self about Mason, he said he thought he could be a second-team All-Big 12 player by his junior year.
"Coach goes, 'Huh, second-team all-league? So you're saying he could be one of the best players in the Big 12, top 10 or 15?'"
Townsend was wrong about one thing—he was off a year.
"No question, especially if we win (the Big 12), because he's been our best player," Townsend said. "He's turned out to be. And you know, to me, people that were on the Internet could see that (Andrew) Wiggins was going to be a player. Frank is the kind of guy, if you can find those, because if he would have went to a place like Towson, we would have played against him, 'Gah, that guy kicked everybody on our team's butt, why didn't he go higher than that?'"
Now the Jayhawks not only have a point guard they've been missing the last two years in March, but they'll have him for the next two years as well.
Mason is the perfect program player in that he's talented enough to be an all-league player, but he's too short at 5'11" to ever leave early for the NBA, which is something Self has to calculate with almost every guy he recruits.
"It's kind of refreshing to coach at a high-profile place and get a guy that not everybody knows about," Self said. "A guy that you didn't have to go head-to-head with Kentucky or Duke or Louisville or somebody to get him, but after he's been here for two years, he's just as good as anybody you could have recruited."
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.