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Makai Mason: Breaking Down Baylor’s Future Guard

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Exploring Mason’s role for the Bears

Baylor v Yale Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

I can’t think of a story quite this unusual. Makai Mason dropped 31 points on Baylor as Yale upset the No. 5 seed Bears in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. With only one season of eligibility remaining at Yale but two seasons of eligibility remaining to play NCAA basketball, he’ll play the 2018-2019 season for the Bears.

Baylor basketball always has a few stories repeated ad nauseam by ESPN, so expect to hear that tale recounted as often as we heard Tweety Carter played varsity basketball as a seventh grader, Rico Gathers didn’t lift a weight until college and Jake Lindsey is the son of a general manager.

As interesting as Mason ending up a Bear is, what he brings to the team is actually consequential. The 6’1 point guard should be the primary ball handler for the 2018-2019 Bears. We’ll take a look at Mason’s strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths:

1) Shooting

Mason is an excellent shooter. He nailed 36% of his 151 3-point attempts as a sophomore. And he made 81% of his free throws, which placed him in the top 250 nationally.

Yale’s 2016 team was good—they ranked in the top 50 of KenPom and beat Baylor—but Mason was the focal point on offense. He shoots well with defenses focused on him because he gets his shot off quickly:

The 2018-2019 Bears are likely to start Mason, King McClure and Jake Lindsey. That means the back-court will feature three guys who candle the ball, and if Mark Vital plays power forward, the Bears will have four good ball handlers. Mason moves well off the ball, and when that skill is paired with his ability to get shots off quickly, he should fit in well:

If the clips don’t convince you, Mason averaged 1.125 points per possession on spot ups, per Synergy. That puts him in the 87th percentile nationally. The man can even shoot off the dribble and in transition:

2) Isolation scoring

Modern basketball is about free flowing, pace-and-space offenses. But eventually the game gets ugly and a team needs a guy who can make a difficult basket. Baylor has relied on point guards to meet that role and win close games.

Pierre Jackson hit a contested 3-point shot to knock off Texas A&M in the last Battle of the Brazos between the two teams in the Big 12:

Kenny Chery reminded Iowa State that their mascot makes zero sense:

Lester Medford made a nice game winner against Texas Tech:

And Manu Lecomte made sure Iowa State knew we didn’t forget about the mascot issue:

Mason has been an excellent isolation scorer. He scored .94 points per possession in isolation opportunities as a sophomore, which puts him in the 79th percentile. Mason relies on a step-back jumper. He used that move to torch Baylor in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Mason’s father told SI’s Pete Thamel that move, “was something we practiced over and over, like 10,000 times.” He should be able to get this shot off in crunch-time:

The step-back works because Mason is capable of making shots, even when the defense plays him well:

3) Passing

The 2018-2019 Bears should have a superb back-court, and Mason’s passing ability is a big reason why. He had 15 assists in two games against Duke during the 2015-2016 season. He’s good at getting deep into the paint and finding a teammate as the defense reacts:

And he’s got a few nifty moves as well. Baylor always seems to have quality big men. They’ll appreciate a guy who can do this for them:

Weaknesses:

1) Pick-and-roll offense

Basketball’s most common play is a high pick-and-roll. The Bears run quite a few of these, and Mason was not good in the pick-and-roll as a sophomore.

Mason’s pick-and-roll numbers were bad. He finished 25% of possession in the pick-and-roll (all data from Synergy), so it’s not an uncommon play for him. When he finished the possession in the pick-and-roll (that means he shot or turned it over) he scored just .77 points per possession. When he passed to a teammate, Yale scored just .835 points per possession. Both of those numbers were in the bottom half of college basketball.

There are some reasons for hope though. First, Mason is good at keeping his dribble alive. That skill should help him find a path to the hoop as teams go over on screens to contest his 3-point shooting:

Mason’s ability to keep his dribble alive should also help him against teams that hedge screens. Kansas is spectacular at this. But a lot of teams hedge Baylor’s screens because the Bears usually have a smaller point guard who has difficulty finding passing lanes against big men. And for all their other skills, the Bears often have big men who aren’t mavens at rolling to the hoop. When you can keep your dribble going and are ready to attack, you can attack as the defense screws up hedges. One of the problems with hedging is that a defender can end up screening his own teammate. Duke did that, and Mason made them pay:

Second, Mason is good at finding the roll man with pocket passes. Baylor—like a lot of teams—has their big man slip screens to get open from 10 to 15 feet. The Bears usually have a big man who hits a 15 foot jumper at a high clip. Whether that’s Tristan Clark or someone else in 2018-2019, Mason will find them:

Finally, the 2018-2019 Bears should make running the pick-and-roll easier. Baylor will play King McClure and Jake Lindsey a ton. Those guys can rain 3-point shots. Defenders will be left in a difficult spot, deciding whether to help off Lindsey and McClure behind the arc or stay attached to them, which would leave just two men to defend the pick-and-roll.

Mason is probably not going to be an elite pick-and-roll initiator, but there are many circumstances where he can succeed initiating the pick-and-roll. Scott Drew has found a way to put his players in the best position. He should be able to do that with Mason.

2) Scoring at the rim:

Mason struggled to score at the rim as a sophomore. He attempted just 17.5% (all numbers at the rim via hoop-math.com) of his shots there, and he made just 47% of his looks. He’s only 6’1, which again can make scoring over longer players at the rim difficult.

But players can improve their decision-making at the rim. Manu Lecomte hit 41% of his shots at the rim in his last season at Miami, and he made 61.8% of his looks there last season. He became more selective about shooting at the hoop, and Mason could do that too.

Part of Mason’s problem may be that he’s capable of making some very tough shots. When Mason can make looks like this, it’s tough to turn down bad opportunities near the hoop:

Mason is capable of making shoots at the hoop. But he needs to improve on when he shoots in the paint. For Lecomte, that meant taking fewer looks and instead, focusing on 3-point attempts and finding teammates. Mason has a similar skill-set and should be able to do the same.

Conclusion:

The Bears should be thrilled they landed Maki Mason. He’s a fantastic shooter, isolation scorer and passer. Those skills served him well in some of his biggest games against quality competition at Yale. They’ll serve him well at Baylor too.

Mason needs to improve his pick-and-roll offense and scoring at the rim. But he’ll be in a wonderful situation at Baylor to highlight his strengths in those areas and minimize his weaknesses. Mason appears to have picked the perfect situation for his talent.