MINNEAPOLIS — Richard Pitino had just two freshmen on his roster last year in his first season as the Gophers men’s basketball coach, and neither averaged a ton of playing time. There are three first-year players on the 2014-15 team, and there’s one in particular that Pitino believes is the most ready to contribute.
That would be Nate Mason, a 6-foot-1 guard and Georgia native. Mason, along with forward Josh Martin and center Bakary Konate, comprise the freshman class at Minnesota. Martin is athletic and should bring energy to the court, while Konate is a presence in the paint at 6-11, though the Mali native is still a bit raw.
And then there’s Mason, who chose the Gophers over Kansas State and Virginia to join a Minnesota team fresh off an NIT championship. There’s a good chance he could see plenty of time on the court this winter as the Gophers look to take the next step in Pitino’s second year at the helm.
"You find that, I think, a lot that guards are more ready to go right away as opposed to bigs," Pitino said. "It takes them a little bit longer."
Pitino and Gophers fans got to see Mason in action this past Sunday when Minnesota hosted an intrasquad scrimmage at Williams Arena. His impact was noticeable as he was 5 of 8 from 3-point range and finished with 17 points to lead the Gold team in scoring.
In his blog on the Gophers’ website, Pitino gave a few comments of each player’s performance in that scrimmage. Mason earned praise from his head coach, who said Mason "did a lot of good things." Pitino also noted, though, that Mason struggled to mentally move on after making mistakes — he had four turnovers in the scrimmage.
That’s something that the Gophers’ senior guards have noticed in the youngster, too. DeAndre Mathieu spoke highly of Mason at Minnesota’s media day earlier this month, but alluded to the same thing Pitino did when he said Mason takes things personally when something goes wrong on the court.
"He gets down on himself," Mathieu said. "I keep telling him, ‘Don’t get down on yourself. You’re a freshman. You’ve got a lot of basketball to play. Just enjoy it.’"
Mason (right), with NBA star Chris Paul.
That leadership of the senior guards hasn’t been lost on Mason, who has enjoyed the tutelage of Mathieu and fellow senior guard Andre Hollins as he continues to adapt to a new level of basketball.
"I’m learning from two great guards," Mason said. "It only can do nothing but help. Practicing against them every day is the best thing possible."
Mason, 19, grew up in Decatur, Ga., but graduated from Arlington Country Day School in Jacksonville, Fla. As a senior there, he averaged 15.6 points and 8.7 assists per game as he earned All-City, All-County, All-Area and All-State honors as both a junior and senior. On top of that, Mason thrived in the classroom as he was valedictorian of the 2014 senior class.
Despite offers from a few other Division I schools, Mason was drawn to Minnesota. Pitino was a big reason why.
"When I came here, the coaches made me feel like it was home. I just felt comfortable with the coaches," Mason said. "(Pitino’s) going to be tough on me, and that’s something that I want in college — something that I need in college to be successful."
Pitino raved about Mason in a blog post earlier this summer, comparing him to Hollins by saying the two have similar games. Like Hollins, Mason is capable of running the point but can also hit shots from downtown. If that’s the case, the Gophers can expect solid guard play for four more years. Pitino also went on to say that Mason "seems unfazed at all times," which seems to be a good attribute for a point guard.
Mathieu has been equally impressed with the transition Mason has made from high school to college, saying that he seems more like a junior college transfer than a true freshman.
"He’s really mature for a freshman. He understands the game, understands the plays," Mathieu said. "I think he’s going to be really good for this program in the future, and he can really help us out in the year coming up. His maturity is something that I didn’t have as a freshman. He understands when to score, when to pass. He really fits in."
Mason said he’s still not quite sure what his role will be, but there’s a chance he could be one of the first players off the bench for Minnesota. By all accounts, it seems as if he’ll see a good amount of playing time as a freshman behind his mentors, Hollins and Mathieu.
"Just coming from me, I think my role is just be the best player I can be and help the team as much as I can," Mason said. "My goal for myself is just help the team and be the best teammate possible."