By Rustin Dodd
In college basketball terms, Kansas freshman guard Frank Mason fits a pretty familiar archetype: An overlooked recruit. A little undersized. A young point guard armed with enough built-in confidence to start a few games in November.
But after 11 games, Mason has also proved himself to been keenly self-aware — most notably when it comes to his shooting numbers. In short: Mason is not shooting it well from three-point range, and he knows this.
“I know I’m capable of shooting way better than what I’m doing,” Mason said this past weekend. “But I know it’s going to take a little time.”
For a 5-foot-11 guard with the ability to penetrate and make plays, perhaps that’s about all you can hope for. Mason is shooting 22.7 percent (five of 22) from three-point range, a number that is partially responsible for keeping him behind junior guard Naadir Tharpe in the Jayhawks’ rotation. But Kansas coach Bill Self believes Mason is a better shooter than he has shown. And Mason says he always shot a better percentage from three during his high school days.
“In high school, I shot more of a set shot,” Mason said. “But now in college, I have to jump, so I’m adjusting to that.”
The same can be said for Kansas. While the fortunes of the Jayhawks, 8-3, certainly won’t rest on the outside shooting of their backup point guard, Mason’s struggles highlight an area that has curbed the Jayhawks’ offensive efficiency, taking a potentially great offense and making it merely above average.
In 11 games, the Jayhawks rank 10th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. That’s considerably better than last season, when the Jayhawks finished the season ranked 34th in offense. But it leads to a rather fascinating subplot.
The Jayhawks, to this point, have been one of the most efficient offenses in the country … and they’ve done it while being one of the worst three-point shooting teams of Self’s KU tenure.
Kansas is shooting 32.1 percent from three-point range, and while the number isn’t crippling, it still ranks 219th in the country. Even more alarming: Just 18.8 percent of KU’s points are coming from three-pointers, way below what Self has been accustomed to over the last six years. Since the 2007-08 season, the year the Jayhawks won the NCAA title, Self has never had a team score less than 23 percent of its points from three-point range.
If that sounds slightly confusing, let’s look at the following chart. The first number is the percentage of KU’s field-goal attempts that come from behind the three-point line. The second number is the percentage of KU’s points that are coming off three-pointers.
Year Percent of shots from 3 Percentage of points from 3s
2013-14* 28.7% 18.8%
2012-13 29.0% 23.3%
2011-12 29.6% 23.2%
2010-11 32.4% 26.4%
2009-10 30.7% 26.8%
2008-09 30.7% 25.0%
2007-08 29.3% 25.1%
*Through 11 games
In 11 games, KU is averaging 78.2 points per game — but just around 15 of those points are coming from three-point field goals.
While the three-point issues plagued Kansas in its three early losses, the Jayhawks’ overall offensive profile is still largely positive. They’ve been dominant in the post, shooting 57.5 percent on two-point field goals (the third best mark in the country). And freshman center Joel Embiid (68 percent from the floor) is rapidly evolving into an offensive weapon.
In Kansas’ last victory before Christmas, an 86-64 drubbing of Georgetown, the Jayhawks scored 1.26 points per possession. By efficiency measures, it equaled KU’s best offensive performance of the year (The Jayhawks had the same efficiency against Towson.) But a week later, Self was still believing the Jayhawks had more room to grow.
“We’re still just not lighting it up from the perimeter,” Self said this past weekend. “But I thought we were efficient. We played through our bigs, and we took better care of the basketball. We acted like we knew how we were going to score.”
So even after an offensive effort that any coach would go for, it still left one question:
Can Kansas be a true contender if it’s scoring only 18.8 percent of its points on threes?
History suggests no … but it’s close.
In the last five years, just one Final Four team has been less reliant on the three-pointer than Kansas has been. That was UConn in 2009, which scored just 17.6 percent of its points from the outside. Some other programs (think Ohio State and Louisville) have made runs while doing most of its scoring on the inside, but 19 of the last 20 Final Four teams have all scored at least 20 percent of their points from three.
So, yes, KU needs to make a few more outside jumpers. Here are KU’s three-point numbers from the last seven seasons:
Year Three-point percentage National rank
2013-14 32.1% 219
2012-13 36.4% 63
2011-12 34.5 149
2010-11 38.2% 24
2009-10 40.4% 7
2008-09 36.7% 63
2007-08 39.7% 14
If there’s a positive sign for Self, it’s that his starters are actually shooting relatively well. Tharpe (36.7 percent) and freshmen Wayne Selden (37 percent) and Andrew Wiggins (35.1 percent) have all shot above the 33 percent threshold from the outside. And the trio has shot a combined 41.8 percent in their last five games.
The real drag on the outside shooting has come from Mason and two other freshmen (Conner Frankamp and Brannen Greene) expected to provide some shooting off the bench. All together, the reserve guards are shooting 23 percent from three. The hope for KU, perhaps, is that all three will shoot a little better after getting adjusted to the speed of the college game. (And, of course, Frankamp and Greene will likely see their minutes limited in conference play anyway.)
If the numbers hold, the solution seems pretty simple: Selden and Tharpe need to be taking a few more threes, and Mason needs to be a little more selective. But mostly, KU just needs to make a few more threes to take another step forward on offense.
“(Coach Self) just wants me to shoot the ball when I’m open,” Selden said. “so that’s what I’m trying to do. It’s not really shooting more or less.”