NBA draft prospect Mason Jones: 'I can achieve being an All-Star or being an MVP in the league'

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

NBA draft prospect Mason Jones: 'I can achieve being an All-Star or being an MVP in the league'

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NBA draft prospect Mason Jones: 'I can achieve being an All-Star or being an MVP in the league'

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Arkansas Razorbacks point forward Mason Jones was one of the most impressive scorers in all of college basketball last season.

Jones, a 6-foot-5 prospect, averaged 22.0 points and 5.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game. During his two seasons at Arkansas, he shot 36.8 percent from beyond the arc.

He spoke to HoopsHype about how he has been preparing for the draft. Note that this transcription has been minorly edited for clarity.

How have you been spending your time while quarantined due to the coronavirus epidemic?

Mason Jones: I’m holding up. I’m at home. I’ve just been at home with the family and with my sister and my dog. I’m still working out. I’m running the track, lifting, doing sit-ups, doing little things to make my body stay in shape. I’m doing the right things, eating the right stuff and just being ready and prepared for when all of this does end and we can get back to the regular world.

I’m sure it was frustrating to have your season cut short. How have you dealt with that?

MJ: I just tell myself that God has plans for everybody. This is one of the plans that God had for all of us. For me, to still be able to prove a lot of people wrong and to know that I’m just going to get better from here, I was just basically showing people glimpses of my potential. I know when the time does come and basketball does come back around, I’m going to be ready and I’m going to be able to show my full potential soon.

What made you decide now was the best time to become an NBA player and declare for the draft?

MJ: I just felt like I was prepared. I felt like I showed a lot this year that people just weren’t really expecting. That’s what I wanted to do and now that I have done that, I feel like I’m ready for bigger challenges ahead. I feel like my first year at Arkansas, I definitely learned a lot. But my second year, it was a year that made me feel ready and I was ready to put my name out there and let people know that I was here. The accountability that the program held me to and my teammates really helped me this year. I want to keep making a name for myself and keep proving a lot of people wrong. I want to be an inspiration for people who were not highly recruited or were doubted at a young age. I want them to just keep going and keep working hard. One day, it’s all going to pay off.

That is really awesome stuff. What are some of your biggest motivators?

MJ: My brother. My family. My friends. The way they push me and the way they tell me that if I have a good game, they still expect a lot of me. All of my trainers kept motivating me, too, because everything they told me that I could not do, I did. They kept bringing more. They kept throwing challenges at me and I wanted to keep getting the challenges. I’ve been living off of challenges. This is a bigger challenge, going to the league. People were like, “Is he ready?” That’s another challenge I’m going to succeed at and I’m going to keep proving them wrong.

What are some of the biggest victories that you have had from those challenges?

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MJ: This year, I really wanted to average 16.0 points and 5.0 assists per game. That is one of the things I said. I wanted to be First-Team All-Conference, too. But to be honest, I was just a kid, I was just putting goals. I didn’t know if Coach [Eric Musselman] was really going to get me the role to be able to do all of those things. But he told me to work hard and that was one of the biggest things I did this year. I was able to accomplish being First-Team All-Conference and AP SEC Player of the Year. And I did things people never thought I would be able to do.

I have to ask: What caused you to come to basketball so late in your life?

MJ: I was fat. I didn’t really want to live in my brother’s and sister’s footsteps, so I wanted to take another road. I want to take another path down on my own lane. And I just felt like at the end of the day, God was like: “Mase, this is not working. You know where your heart is. Basketball is where your heart is.” And I just knew that day that I wanted to take it more seriously.

Oh, wow. How did you change your body to get it where it is now?

MJ: I was 270. I changed my body by just working hard and just eating right. I’ve just been on a mission. Once I get on a mission, nothing really can stop me. I’m still on a mission. There are just a lot of things going on in this world right now that we can’t control. But I’m doing all the right things and the little things to stay prepared and stay motivated. My body is definitely still changing. I know that people say I’m strong right now, but I’m going to get stronger, only going to get faster, only going to get better. That’s the thing about me. I’m 21 years old and I still haven’t peaked yet. I’m a late bloomer, there are a lot of years ahead that are going to see a lot of good Mason Jones going around. That’s just the plan, just to work hard and just keep getting better. Just getting faster and stronger and just getting more mentally and physically prepared for what’s coming. Once I get into it, I will be exactly where I want to be.

Tell me a little bit about your backstory, going to junior college after discovering basketball at a late age.

MJ: I started playing basketball again as a senior in high school and I went to AAA Academy. I didn’t start as a senior until the last couple of games of the regular conference. I didn’t have anything coming out. So I went to Link Year Prep. That’s where I really found God and I became a true believer. Then, I went to junior college and it was the best year of my life. I went to junior college and freshmen don’t play at junior college right away. But I started right off the bat. I was able to prove a lot of people wrong. I left as Region II MVP. I was also the conference tournament MVP. Good things were happening. I was blessed to pick up a late scholarship from Arkansas. Arkansas took a chance on me.

My first year was with Mike Anderson. They just molded me. They put me through all life situations. I started off as a starter and then I went to the bench. I had to see how life was on the bench. I knew at the end of the season that I didn’t want to ever feel that again. So coming in, we got a new coach in Coach Muss. I didn’t really know a lot about him. I just knew that he was an NBA coach. I knew he was going to get the best out of his players. We finally had a talk. I told him exactly what I want to do. He was like, “Mase, I’m going push you and make you the best player that you can be.” Day by day, he did that. I just can’t thank him enough for everything he did and the way that he led me and let me show people who Mason Jones really is. A lot of people in college basketball don’t get that role. A lot of coaches don’t really trust people to do all that. But Coach Muss, he really trusted me. The way that he trusted me really took my game to another level and I want to do everything in my power to make sure I can thank him and my coaches and my teammates because they all believed in me so much. Everything is on you. Everybody’s watching you. I love it. Just being a late bloomer, I love everything about the game of basketball. I just want to be the best. I just feel like whoever is going to invest in me, it’s going to be a long journey and it’s going to be a great investment because I’m only getting better. I’m going to catch up. I’m steady, catching up to a lot of people that people say are better than I am. I’m just catching up and it’s all because of God and hard work. I’m just going to use that method. Keep going forward.

What were some of those conversations that you had with Coach Muss?

MJ: He just basically told me all my pros and cons. He would always sit me down every weekend and told me exactly what he wanted me to do for each game. So having a coach come to you every week and push you into weekly goals is incredible. Some games, coach pulled me out and told me that I was not playing well enough. That challenged me and I went out there and gave 100 percent and gave him everything off the court. It’s just these coaches can do to challenge players Coach Muss was a great challenger for me. Just having him and a coaching staff challenge me every day and give me new goals was incredible and for me to be able to exceed the goals and make my coach and my teammates all happy and just to make all the Arkansas fans happy was so amazing. That’s nothing to take for granted.

What was the ceiling for this Arkansas team if you could’ve kept playing in 2020?

MJ: I feel like we definitely could have made a big run. We were just starting to get going. We beat Vanderbilt by a good 15 points and we were really looking forward to playing South Carolina, and winning that game would’ve gotten us into the tournament. So I knew we had a lot of momentum going in and it was just sad to wake up to the news that the NCAA had canceled the rest of the season. We definitely could have made a big run, knowing that if we would have gotten into a play-in game in the NCAA tournament, we would have made noise from there. Or if we would have had a regular seed, I feel like our team and the coaching staff knew we were ready to go.

What was the main thing that you learned at Arkansas that is going to make you a solid NBA player?

MJ: Coming in day in and day out, being ready to go. Coach always told me that if you had a good practice, it’s going to carry into the game. So at the beginning of the season, I was just having okay practices. But then I took it in and I started to understand exactly what he was saying. I took practice so seriously and I took every day like it was a game-like situation. That’s what I’m going to take away — knowing all of the little things that Coach taught me.

Your team had the second-best three-point defense among all NCAA teams. What was your role in this and how important was that for your team?

MJ: My role was just being able to guard. Coach just emphasized it. We need to keep people away from the three-point. That’s what we lived and died by out there. We just practiced it every day. We were always prepared to come out and stop teams from shooting three-pointers and we wanted them to penetrate and shoot twos. That was a big part of every game and we did that. The coaching staff did a great job on the scouting report and the players, we just went out there and executed. We were just able to play good defense and hold a lot of people under [their scoring average]. One thing that Coach always told us was to put our hands to the eyeballs. He knows that people don’t like that, so he tried to emphasize that and to try to jump to the ball.

How do you think your perimeter defense will translate to the next level?

MJ: I feel like I can really guard one through four. I can do a lot. I can guard a point guard, I can guard a shooting guard and I can guard a small forward; it’s just about the match-ups. I had to play a lot of four because our team was small and Coach just wanted us to go small, so I was doing everything I could do for our team. As you can tell if you watched us play, we switched everything one through five. When I go to the next level, that is really going to carry on because I was able to guard so many positions. So dealing with my IQ and the way I’m going to keep getting faster on my foot speed and everything that is going to happen this summer while training will help me as it translates to the next level.

You also ranked Top 5 among all D-I players in total points scored in transition. How did you develop to finish at such a prolific rate?

MJ: I really came late to the game. I’m just stepping into my little zone now. I know the transition game was a little different. I studied the game. I study people from the league that really didn’t have a lot of athleticism but knew how to finish. I really dived into film sessions. I dived into film and added things to my game that I can do in transition. It’s about me being smooth and able to pick my spots and my angles. I know when to finish and when to draw contact. I watch Manu Ginobili, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, guys like that. They finish well and know how to score at all three levels. As you can watch, Manu was very good at transition points. I watched a lot of him. He did the Euro-steps and knew when to go to the other side. It’s just little things that I have to do that are going to separate me from other good players. I want to be one of the best players in the league one day. That’s what is able to separate being good and great. Dive into film, knowing that there are some things you can’t do, but there are things that you can do if you overcome challenges. And that was just one of the things that I wanted to do this year.

You also shot 75.6 percent at the rim, which was the best among high-major players 6-foot-5 or shorter. Did you pick up a lot of that from watching Doncic and Ginobili as well?

MJ: It’s just the people I watch, you know. I’m watching Luka. I’m watching Manu. I’m watching James Harden. As you can see, Harden is not really doing a lot of dunking. He does a lot of more finesse layups or he uses his body to get the defender off and get the fouls. That’s when I really knew I was moving to become elite at foul drawing. Like I knew I could get people to foul me when I started really watching James Harden and watching what he was doing and I started to do it. I started to add it to my game. It just skyrocketed. Once I knew that watching film can really work, I started moving into Luka and how he knows when to go to a basket, how he uses angles and how he uses his body. It’s just incredible just to watch players like Luka because he had the same thing, lack of athleticism, but he’s killing the league right now in his second year. It’s just crazy to watch how he has developed after people questioned his lack of athleticism. That’s the same boat I’m in right now. They’re downgrading me because of athleticism. But I just feel like I’m still a Top 15 player in the draft. I still feel like I was one of the Top-5 best players in college basketball. And that could be my opinion, a lot of people feel the same thing. But it’s it just goes off production. I feel like I had the production this year. I showed that I can get to the line and I showed that I scored on all three levels in the game. Some people might say I need one more year. I’m just ready for bigger challenges. Once a team really sees it, they’re going to know that they have a special player who is capable of becoming a phenomenal player.

You drew 8.1 fouls per 40 minutes, which was the most in the nation. What are some of the strategies that you use to get to get to the free-throw line so often?

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

MJ: Yeah, I’ve definitely picked that up watching Harden. If you watch back film on me, he used to always do a double between to see what his defender was doing with his hips. He’ll always get lower than the hips of the defender. And when I was watching that a lot, I was like, “Okay, I see.” Once he went past the defender, the defender only had two choices: let him get the layup or a foul. Once I learned that, I was unstoppable. I really took advantage and I ran with it. That’s the difference between me and a lot of players. This game, it’s not a game to me. I’m here for business and I want to be great. I have a lot of things that I want to still show. What can I do better? That’s exactly what I want to add. You can see that in the game that I played in college basketball this year, doing numbers that people haven’t seen in 20 years. It’s just incredible. But I still got downplayed. But it will all translate to the next level. I’m only getting better.

Your last three games, on 24 attempts beyond the arc, you shot 58 percent from three-point range. If you get that shot going, we might have a superstar on our hands. What is your comfort level in your jumper?

MJ: I shot 35.1 percent from three this year. But don’t put in consideration that I had to shoot a lot more deep-range threes because I was getting double- and triple-teamed off screens. I was just trying to see where the shots were going to come off. But it’s hard to guard a man that can score on three levels and that’s definitely what I am. Once the three-pointer gets going, I know they have to come up on me. I’m a dangerous person when all three things are going. When the three is going, nobody can guard me. I’m going to use my separation and I’m going to use my angles and I’m going to use my high IQ to figure out what the defender is doing. If he is riding my hip, I’m going do a step back or I’m going to do behind the back. If the defender is on my back, I’m going to go to get the layup or I’m going to get the foul. It’s just knowing what you can do and watching film every day to see what you can get better at and that’s really why my production skyrocketed because I did the little things that a lot of people don’t do. I stayed in my room, watched film. I connected with my coaches every day on film. I just did the little things. I worked out from 5:00 to 6:30 in the morning, every morning. I came back at night and that’s just the grind that I’m used to now. I was able to come out with a lot of confidence and lot of accolades.

If you have open looks off the catch, how do you think you’ll do on those? I think that’s an area where you can still improve. 

MJ: Definitely, definitely. That’s a different role that I would have to step into and I’m going to take it in and I’m going to kill it. You know, I’m just ready to be able to give a chance and show the world who Mason Jones is and I feel like I gave a lot of people a lot of glimpses this year. I feel like a lot of people are ready to see what else I can bring and I know I can bring that more. That’s one of the big things I want to work on, too, is just being a better catch-and-shoot guy. This year, I had to do a lot more, so that really wasn’t a big priority to me. But I definitely can do that. I definitely have shown it at all levels. During junior college, I was just catch and shoot. My first year at Arkansas, I was just a catch and shoot. And then in my third year, I just wanted to be an all-around player and show everybody what Mason Jones can really do. I just got in the gym and I worked on all three levels. Once God blesses me wherever he wants me to go, I’m going to be able to show all three levels and I want to be able to show that fourth level and that is catch-and-shoot. And then the fifth level, being a good defender. I was one of the top defenders in the SEC, but I want to be a better defender than what I’ve shown. I always got things to work on.

You ran a lot of pick-and-roll as the ballhandler, over 100 possessions, for someone your size. How would you describe your ball handling skills?

MJ: I feel like I’m at the top. I showed all the handles. I showed all the IQ. I feel like people are just basically skeptical of me right now because of my athleticism. That’s really the biggest thing for me right now. And once I get myself able to show people that I’m bigger than that and I still can do all three levels just as good as that, I know that I’m going to be one of the elite players in this draft. There are going to be a lot of people surprised on draft night. But my handles, I love it. I just know I can get better at it and Coach Muss told me every day to work on it. Every game, my handles got tighter and tighter. At the end of the day, it’s all about hard work. So having a coach that believes in me and just having coaching staff and teammates pushing me every day really helped. That was one of the big things in the season, too, because I had a lot of turnovers coming in. Coach Muss wanted me to have a tighter handle and have a better IQ and have a better sense of awareness of how I handled the ball. The more and more the season went on, the more my turnovers went down while my assists went up. My handles got tight. I was able to move the ball into little spots where I couldn’t do before. It just shows now that if you work on the things that are your weakness, you are only going to get better.

Who are some guys that you’re watching when you’re studying ball handling?

MJ: I’m going to say Stephen Curry. How does he come off screens and how did he do what he did with his left hand up when he was coming off shots? How does he handle going into small situations and how does he handle it in fast breaks? I also watch Chris Paul. He is one of the best point guards in the league, to me, dealing with his handle. How is he so crafty going into his shot? He gets so much separation despite not being able to dunk or anything like that. You have to outsmart your opponent. I watch guys that dealt with the same doubts that they have about me. I like to watch guys like that who are killing it at the next level. People are not doubting them anymore. Those two of the best players in the world right now and they both have the best handles.

What is your biggest goal for improving as a basketball player moving forward?

MJ: Oh, I think becoming an elite defender. I want to be an elite defender while also being an elite scorer. I see myself like Jimmy Butler. We both have the same traits. We are competitive. We’ve been through all stages of life, we went to junior college and then we went two years at Division-I high major. He felt like he was ready after his second year at Marquette. He went on and I watched a lot of Jimmy Butler also just to see his story and his demeanor and the way he approaches life. He’s the underdog and he takes it every day. I feel like I can add being an elite defender to my game. I want to add that and I want to take pride in that more, just like I take pride in being an elite scorer and getting to the rack. I want to take pride in locking down the best player and being me and just guarding. I want people to think, “Oh, okay, he is a two-way player.”

As a freshman, you played alongside a future pro in big man Daniel Gafford. What advice has he given you about preparing for the NBA?

MJ: He told me that when you get there, it is just a man’s game. You have to be ready and mentally prepared for it every night. You’ve got to be ready to go. You never know when your time is going to come. You never know if you are going to play this game or that game. So he just said you have to be mentally prepared. Play like it is your last game every game.

What are some of the things that you like to do outside of basketball?

MJ: Outside of basketball, I just like to hang with my friends. We call it the blast boys and I like to hang out with them. I like to let them know that they are my guys. They are my circle and it’s always going to stay small. I like to get outside and I like to run. I like to swim. I like to play golf. I love going to the movies. Just making sure you’re around good people, that’s going to keep you motivated.

Tell me about your support system that has helped you stay focused.

MJ: My parents have definitely helped me. My mom and dad definitely helped me through a long time, just to see the whole ride that I’ve been on is incredible. They told me that this journey that I am on is meant for me and God has blessed me for this. Just to have a mom and dad support me so much through everything I’ve been through, it’s amazing. For them to still be able to support me the way they do right now is just loving. I love it. The way my mom is more involved with my business stuff and interviews and stuff now, I love it, just for her to help me and take time out of her day to help me. My dad has helped me with motivation. So it’s just it’s incredible to see when my parents are doing and I’m definitely grateful for it.

What are some things that people don’t know about you?

MJ: I’m a very loving person. You know, I love to see my teammates and I love to see people around me happy. On the court, I’m more ready. But off the court, I’m very goofy. I just love to see people happy and I love God. I just love to take care of people and I’m a very caring person.

What are some of your goals for your professional career?

MJ: I want to be an All-Star. I have a lot to prove and I feel like the way I work hard and the way I carry myself and the way I care about the game, I definitely feel like I can achieve being an All-Star or being an MVP in the league. Those are things that I dream about. I want to put them in real-life situations. I have a chance to be that, I have a chance to be an MVP. I have a chance to put the work in and know that nothing is going to be handed to me, it’s going to be all hard work. I know exactly what to do when my back is against the wall or people have doubts: work hard and keep proving wrong. That’s definitely what I’m going to continue to do.

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