By RICH MYHRE
SEATTLE – This much Desmond Mason knew. In the NBA, rookies should not be late.
What confused Mason was the definition of late.
Gary Payton set him straight.
As a general rule, and regardless of the clock, any rookie who arrives at a Seattle SuperSonics game, practice, meeting or other team function after Payton is late. No negotiation, no excuses.
It happened earlier in training camp, when Mason made a mid-morning trip to the airport to pick up his parents. The outing caused Mason to reach practice later than ordinary, even though he still had 15 minutes to spare.
Except Payton was already in the locker room.
“He let me know about it,” Mason said, grinning at the memory.
Some rookies, having reached the NBA after years of college stardom, might have bristled at the rebuke. The genial Mason never flinched.
“I took it with respect because (Payton) is a veteran,” said Mason, Seattle’s 2000 first-round draft pick. “He’s the leader of this team. I told him it wouldn’t happen again and it hasn’t happened again. And it won’t.”
By the time his pro career reaches its height, there could be many reasons to admire Mason. He is a remarkably gifted athlete with outstanding court instincts. Throughout this season, Sonics fans will marvel at Mason’s ability to soar to the basket for rim-rocking dunks. His jump shot is short of flawless, but it is good and getting better.
For now, though, it is enough that Mason seems to be everything a team would want in a rookie – hard-working, passionate, poised and dutiful in the company of elders.
Mason and Payton will get well acquainted in the coming years since they are expected to share Seattle’s starting backcourt.
Sonics coach Paul Westphal was fond enough of Mason during the draft, but truly fell in love while watching the youngster in the summer pro leagues. Westphal moved Mason onto the first team early in the preseason, and on Tuesday confirmed that same lineup for the upcoming regular season (Mason will not start tonight’s exhibition vs. Sacramento because of a sprained right ankle).
“Right off the bat, when I got thrown into the lineup, it was kind of overwhelming,” admitted the 6-foot-5 Mason. “I was looking at the guys I was playing with, and it was Gary Payton, Vin Baker and Patrick Ewing. Playing with them was kind of a dream come true for me, along with just being in the NBA.”
When Mason made a miscue in an early game, it was Ewing who offered some fatherly encouragement. “Patrick came up to me and said, ‘Look, you belong here with us.’ That really comforted me and kind of relaxed me.”
One of Mason’s champions is Seattle assistant Nate McMillan, a longtime Sonic. As a player, McMillan cashed in every ounce of talent he had, and he sees the same trait in Mason.
“What you try to teach NBA players,” McMillan said, “is to play every possession. Well, Desmond plays every possession. Even in practice, I’ve never seen him take a possession off.”
Advancing from college to the NBA “is a huge jump, but he has the ability to be effective,” McMillan added. “He’s going to look like a rookie at times, and then he’s going to look like an All-Star at times. … He really has a complete game. He can score, he can post up, he defends, he’s competitive, he can isolate. He’s going to be exciting to watch. Now, it’s just a matter of him getting to battle and finding out how to use his ability, because he has everything you’d want a player in his position to have.”
With Mason moving into the starting lineup, someone obviously had to move out. It was Brent Barry, who started 74 games for the Sonics last season. In a gesture of genuine class and maturity, Barry not only stepped aside willingly, but he has continued to tutor Mason in the finer points of backcourt play.
“Brent’s attitude has been great,” Westphal said. “He’s a pro all the way through. … Brent is still a terrific part of this team. He will be there down the stretch (of games) a lot of times. I also like to bring in a reliable veteran off the bench because I think it can give you a real good boost, so he’s going to be a real important contributor.”
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