Coming out of high school, Mason Jones didn’t have any offers to play college basketball. He was a late bloomer who didn’t start playing basketball until his senior year at Triple A Academy in Dallas, Texas.
He attended a post-graduate year at Link Year Prep in Branson, Missouri before ultimately deciding to go the junior college route at Connors State College in Warner, Oklahoma. It was there that he eventually blossomed into a legitimate Division 1 prospect.
In one year for Connors State, Jones put up 15.9 points per game, 6.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists while shooting 42.9 percent from three-point range. He helped lead the Cowboys to the Elite Eight in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) playoffs in 2018 while fielding offers from Arkansas, BYU and Washington.
He chose Eric Mussleman and the Razorbacks and his road to the NBA was set in motion. Although he only spent one season at Connors State instead of the two years of eligibility junior college athletes have, he looks back fondly on his time as a Cowboy and believes it shaped and prepared him for what lay ahead in his basketball journey.
“Connors State was probably one of the best years of my life. Coach Bill Muse, he was able to teach me how to be a man. I was a freshman and I thought things would go my way but they didn’t, and it made me mature early and it made me the player I am today,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “Knowing that I was able to go through junior college and make it through there and continue to build my career, that was a big step in my life. I’m always proud to say I came from JuCo.”
There are quite a few players in the NBA whose journey did not follow the traditional route of being a top high school recruit, a top college prospect and then a sure-fire first-round draft pick. Jones knew his path would be different, he knew he was going to have to work harder. And he did just that while at Arkansas.
During his sophomore year, he became one of the Razorbacks top scorers at 13.9 points per game, but it was during his junior year that he really exploded on the scene. He upped his scoring average to 22 points per game, pulled down 5.5 rebounds and dished out 3.4 assists. He was named SEC Co-Player of the Year along with Mississippi State’s Reggie Perry and he was firmly on NBA radars.
He wasn’t drafted though in the 2020 NBA draft and he ended up signing with the Houston Rockets on a two-way contract. He played well to start the 2020-21 season, well enough that sending him to the G League bubble with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers wasn’t an option. In 26 games for the Rockets, Jones put up 5.8 points while shooting 35.9 percent from three-point range in 11.8 minutes per game.
Houston opted to cut Jones however, and he ended up signing with the Philadelphia 76ers on another two-way contract. His playing time in Philadelphia was very limited, only six games, and they cut him as well near the end of the season.
Despite an inconsistent and somewhat hectic rookie season in the NBA, there was a lot that Jones was able to take away to help him with his growth as a professional.
“I learned a lot from the experience, knowing that as a rookie you just have to go through the growing pains and knowing that you’re not going to get by in the NBA by talking and by thinking things are going to go your way,” Jones said. “You have to get by, by working, keeping your head down, being patient and understanding that you only control what you can control. I didn’t know that last year and I was able to mature and see that this year. That helped me grow.”
Jones started this season as a free agent. He signed with the South Bay Lakers, the G League affiliate of the Los Angeles Lakers, and he started out the season on a roll. In South Bay’s first 12 games, Jones put up 17.8 points per game, 6.5 rebounds and 7.1 assists while shooting 49.6 percent from the field and 41.2 percent from three-point range.
This was Jones’ first experience with the G League as the Rockets didn’t send him to the bubble and the G League season was already over when he signed with the 76ers. He’s been one of the top standouts for South Bay, so much so that right before Christmas, the Lakers opened up a two-way roster spot by cutting Chaundee Brown and gave that spot to Jones.
Jones credits South Bay head coach Miles Simon for putting him in a position to succeed and allowing him to play his game so that he could be on the radar of NBA teams.
“Coach Miles believed in me. He told me that he knew I was a good player. He was able to believe in me and let me just play my game,” Jones said. “It’s really helped me mature, learn how to still be a point guard and he’s showed me things that I still continue to work on. The more I play and the more I get the reps in, the better I get.”
When Jones first signed with the Lakers back in December, it gave him a sense of confidence and a feeling like he belonged. In Houston, he had played well enough to show he was capable of being an NBA rotation player but things just didn’t work out. The NBA is all about opportunity and fit and as Jones found out, roster moves can happen very quickly.
With a combination of injuries and COVID-19 health and safety protocol-related absences, the Lakers needed extra help on the wings. At the beginning of the season, they had signed former Michigan standout Chaundee Brown to a two-way contract. Brown was supposed to add extra depth to the Lakers guard rotation but he only appeared in two games before they cut him.
At that time, Jones had been on a tear with South Bay and he seemed like an obvious candidate for the Lakers suddenly vacant two-way contract spot. Sure enough, Jones was signed almost immediately after Brown was cut. It’s Jones’ first experience having to split time between an NBA team and their G League affiliate and it’s an experience he’s looking forward to.
“It feels good just knowing that all my hard work is paying off. I know that there’s still a lot more work to get to because I want to be a rotational player for the Lakers. They see me as an NBA player. I know it’s a day-to-day grind, going back and forth between the Lakers and South Bay like this is really intriguing,” Jones said. “It was good knowing that they really believe in me and I’m grateful to be able to get a two-way. I’m just going to continue to work hard.”
Since signing with the Lakers, Jones has suited up in only two games and has spent most of his time in the G League. He was recently called up to the Lakers but for the past month he’s continued to develop his game with South Bay.
He was named G League Player of the Month for January when he put up 28 points per game, 8.9 rebounds and 6.4 assists while shooting 52.1 percent from the field and 37.2 percent from three-point range. During that stretch, he had a 44 point and 17 rebound game against the Salt Lake City Stars.
Jones has always been a scorer since his days at Arkansas when in his junior year he became only the third player in SEC history along with Shaquille O’Neal and Jodie Meeks to have multiple 40 point games in a season. But what has been most impressive during his time with South Bay is his improved playmaking. He’s averaging 6.8 assists on the season and he had a 10 assist game back in December.
Jones has been primarily a shooting guard throughout his career and that’s the position he’s played in both the NBA and the G League. But his playmaking ability is something that can certainly earn him minutes in the NBA and it’s something he’s confident he can bring to the table should the Lakers decide to utilize him at some point this season.
“I can bring playmaking, I can bring energy and I can bring defense. Knowing that I shoot 43 percent from the three, I can bring that spacing that the Lakers need,” Jones said. “I know that I’m young and I can bring that energy and bring a spark off the bench. I know I can do that.”
As of now, the Lakers are fighting for a spot in the end of the season play-in tournament. They are 26-28 and in ninth place in the Western Conference. For a team that once had championship aspirations and is desperately trying to hang on in a tough West playoff picture, it’s difficult to envision Jones getting regular minutes.
Still, he does bring a skill-set that is lacking on the current Laker roster. He’s a consistent three-point shooter and can make plays on or off the ball. His playmaking has improved to the point where he’s comfortable creating looks for his teammates. Until that opportunity comes though, Jones is going to keep working and keep showing that he’s deserving of NBA rotation minutes.
“I want to continue to show that I can be a contributor to a rotation in the NBA and I just want to continue to take it day by day,” Jones said. “If that’s to distribute the ball, I can do that. If that’s to score the ball or bring energy and play defense, I can do that. Teams look for players who can do a little bit of everything. For me to be able to show everything, that helps me more down the road.”