Through thirteen conference games, Kansas holds a two game lead over Baylor for the Big 12 title. With a meeting in Waco on the horizon, let’s look at the two Jayhawks that have legitimate chances to supplement a conference championship with Big 12 player of the year honors.
The case for Frank Mason
It is no secret that the Kansas offense is at its best with Mason running the show. In conference play, KU scores 122.6 points per 100 possessions with their senior point guard on the floor. Mason is averaging just under 20 points per game in conference play, along with four assists and four rebounds. He also is currently boasting an effective field goal percentage of 53% in 13 conference games. For the season, Mason is averaging 20.2 points and 4.9 assists per game. If he were to finish the season averaging 20 and 5, he would be the first player in Big 12 history to do so.
When players are strapped with an increased scoring workload, it isn’t rare to see their assist numbers decline. This hasn’t been the case thus far for Mason. Last season, while averaging just under 13 points per game, Mason also produced 4.6 assists. This year, he has seen an incredible increase in his scoring figures, but his assists per game have also risen to the aforementioned 4.9 figure. Of course, this comes with the territory in regards to Mason’s increased usage as the now focal point of the Kansas offense, but where one offensive area has improved, his distribution remains stellar.
The one area that may have suffered as a result of Mason’s increased offensive production is his defense. By no means is Mason a poor defender, but his defensive rating of 103.2 (109.9 in conference) has increased from his 98.7 mark last season. Still, he’s playing so much, some people wonder if he’ll be able to sustain this mark. Speaking of which…
Mason is being used more on the offensive end, has played in 88% of KU’s minutes, and has still managed to improve his game in nearly every measurable area. Frank Mason has become the face of Kansas basketball nationwide, and soon may have a Big 12 player of the year award to cap off an incredible Jayhawk career.
The case for Josh Jackson
Perhaps the best freshman to play at Kansas under Bill Self, Josh Jackson has put together a season that has him squarely in the conversation for Big 12 player of the year.
Per 40 minutes in conference play, Jackson is averaging: 21.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.4 steals, and 1.0 blocks. Amongst KU starters, Jackson also boasts the top defensive rating in conference play at 102.8. His ability to impact a game in a multitude of ways makes him invaluable to a team already filled with weapons.
The one area where Jackson has noticeably struggled at times is with shooting the basketball. His free-throw percentage on the year is right around 56%, 59% in Big 12 play. Though they have increased a bit, Jackson’s offensive numbers would greatly benefit from better free-throw shooting, as he reaches the line five-and-a-half times per game due to his aggressive style.
As a three-point shooter, Jackson has blossomed in conference play. Entering Big 12 action, he was just 9 of 31 (29%) from beyond the arc. In conference play, Jackson has become a legitimate threat from three, knocking down 41% of them. With his explosiveness and ability to get to the rim, having to respect Jackson’s ability to knock down open threes makes defending him a nightmare.
Jackson has reached another gear as the calendar turned to January, scoring over 20 points five times in conference play, highlighted by a 31-point performance at Texas Tech in which he iced the victory with a free-throw. In the biggest non-conference game of the year, Jackson went into Rupp Arena and put together a 20 point, 10 rebound, three assist, two steal performance in a win over Kentucky.
Jackson figures to be a one-and-done player and an eventual top five pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, but he has certainly made his mark on Kansas basketball and the rest of the conference. There have only been three players to win the Big 12 player of the year award as freshman (Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, and Marcus Smart), but all three of them were selected in the top six of the NBA Draft. If Jackson continues his current trajectory, he may very well be the fourth to do so.
Stats used for this piece are courtesy of College Basketball Reference.