July 10, 2002 CHARLOTTESVILLE The June 26 staging of the NBA draft served as an anticlimax for Virginia, which got the news it had been dreading on June 19.
That was the withdrawal deadline for underclassmen contemplating a return to college, although the Cavaliers had received little indication that leading scorer Roger Mason Jr. might return for his final year.
Not long after it was announced that Chicago had selected him with the third pick of the second round and 31st overall, Mason said he had not wavered since announcing April 8 that he was making himself available for the NBA draft. Nor did he express any regrets despite the second-guessing by TNT commentator Charles Barkley, who said that any underclassmen not selected in the first round had made a mistake, and Dick Vitale, who suggested Mason "would have been better off back in college."
Vitale's cohort at ESPN and ESPN.com, Andy Katz, had been beating that drum for weeks. In fact, given some of the gloomy forecasts on various websites, Mason was picked higher than many people expected.
Moreover, it appears that Mason could receive a guaranteed contract, which was one of the reasons for leaving college early. The oft-quoted assertion that second-round picks do not receive guaranteed contracts is misleading. It would be more accurate to say that second-round picks are not assured of the guaranteed, three-year deals given to first-rounders. The second-rounders, especially those at or near the top of the second round, still can negotiate the terms of their deals, and many of them do end up with contracts that have one- or two-year guarantees. Even a one-year guarantee for the NBA minimum would be worth $350,000.
Although Mason frequently has been depicted as a middle-class kid with a private-school education, it would be a stretch to call him affluent. Whether the family is needy or not is a matter of interpretation, but the Mason-Wonsleys (his stepfather is ex-Washington Redskins running back Otis Wonsley) definitely can use the money. Or maybe, as Mason said on draft night, he was "just ready."
There has been an ongoing debate as to whether Mason doubted the commitment of some of his teammates, or whether he felt isolated as a perceived goody-goody, but chances are he would have made this move anyway. Even at the ACC Tournament, when Mason indicated he would be returning in 2003-04, his words were chosen in such a manner as to leave himself an out.
The UVa staff remained in fairly regular contact with Mason during the spring and early summer, but neither head coach Pete Gillen nor any of his assistants was exactly in the inner circle. Gillen spoke to NBA contacts and passed along that information to Mason, but the coach generally assumed a low profile.
"I don't want to go into specifics," Gillen said in one teleconference. "He talks to people up in D.C. His parents are very active in calling different GMs. I don't want to say what I think. I hope he is (a first-round pick) if he does go, but I don't know what's going to happen. A lot could happen in the draft. It's crazy."
There has been an absence of NBA players from UVa in recent years, with Cory Alexander in 1995 the last ex-Cavalier to be drafted before Mason. Alexander was not in the league this year, when the only UVa alumni active at that level were a pair of 32-year-olds, John Crotty and Bryant Stith.
On the other hand, there is a wealth of Virginia products in coaching and administration, including Seattle SuperSonics president and general manager Wally Walker, Detroit Pistons head coach Rick Carlisle and Phoenix Suns assistant Marc Iavaroni.
It was during a workout with Detroit that Mason aggravated an old shoulder injury that caused him to miss the Chicago pre-draft camp. Sources indicate that Carlisle and Walker both advised Mason that he was unlikely to be selected in the first round. As well-placed as they are, however, Carlisle and Walker may have been viewed as friendly to the UVa cause, ex-Cavaliers eager to see their old program remain strong. On the other hand, it wasn't as if they held a minority view.
When agent Dan Tabor said on draft night that he had expected Mason to go anywhere from 14th to 31st, it had to be dismissed as wishful thinking. The highest Mason appeared in any of the mock drafts was 20th, and that was very early. If Tabor really believed his client would be picked anywhere in the top 20, he clearly was getting bad information, and bad information hurts kids in Mason's position more than anyone else.
Nevertheless, Mason should be a solid pro, maybe more than a solid pro. He has an NBA body, NBA range, smarts, athleticism and the experience of having played point guard for much of his final year at UVa. Mason won't have to play the point the Bulls got Jason Williams of Duke to do that but a year with the ball in his hands helped his ball-handling immensely.
Departure Softens Roster Crunch
Although the Cavaliers hoped until the end that Mason would change his mind, his departure will not cripple the UVa program. Is one year of Mason worth more than two years, at least, of junior-college All-American Devin Smith? Maybe. Maybe not.
To listen to the UVa people, the Cavaliers might have gotten Smith anyway. When Smith committed on April 24, there was still good reason to believe that Mason might be returning. The coaches said they started to recruit Smith after Moe Young's late November decision to transfer and intensified their pursuit because of Gillen's increased fixation with shooters.
Nevertheless, Virginia might have had some problems if Mason had stayed, not necessarily chemistry problems because that implies that players don't get along, but numbers problems. The Cavaliers would have had 11 players on scholarship, 10 of whom would have expected to play, provided Jason Rogers doesn't improve his stock greatly in the offseason.
If Mason had stayed, he would have played up to 35-36 minutes. The players most likely to benefit from those unused minutes are shooting guards Smith and Jermaine Harper, but it was going to be extremely difficult for UVa to find playing time for three point guards Majestic Mapp, Todd Billet and Keith Jenifer and they'll also get some of that time.
Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser has said that nobody in the ACC goes into the season with Virginia's blend of talent and experience, with or without Mason. Of course, Prosser is a former Gillen assistant at Xavier who has made no secret of his indebtedness to his old boss, but why would he want to set Gillen up?
After all, the Cavaliers didn't dominate college basketball when they had Mason. By no means was Mason the reason for a succession of postseason losses, but there's something to be said for a fresh start.