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When you declare for the NBA Draft and no one notices

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A 6-foot-1-inch guard from Yale such as Makai Mason is not your typical NBA prospect.Getty Images/Getty

On many late nights this month, after completing his course work or studying for his final exams at Yale, sophomore guard Makai Mason would go to the university's quiet gym, bleary-eyed from staring at textbooks, and get back to work.

Sometimes he would go alone, sometimes he would pester a teammate to join him, and sometimes he would bring his father, Dan. He would work on his shooting range and his agility and his strength, and he would wake up the next day and hope for a call from an NBA team.

Mason, who declared for the NBA Draft after leading the Bulldogs to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, was not preparing so thoroughly because he believed he would be selected. Instead, he was mostly staying ready in case a team actually asked him to come in for a workout, one of the preliminary stages of this long and winding process.

Mason's story is an example of what happens when a player declares for the draft and NBA teams hardly look up from their clipboards. The Greenfield native was not invited to the NBA combine or any workouts with individual teams. The Celtics, Spurs, and Kings were the only teams to call Yale coach James Jones about Mason, and this phase of the courtship essentially ended with those brief, exploratory conversations.

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"I think it just kind of showed that being a 6-1 dude from the Ivy League, it's tough to get a lot of NBA looks, so you've got to do even more coming from a situation like that," Mason said.

"My family and I just felt like after I had some success in the tournament, I might as well test the waters a little bit and take advantage of the new rule."

The new rule is that if a player does not sign with an agent — Mason did not — he would have until May 25 to retain his college eligibility and return to school. This date is significant because it is after the combine and about three weeks of individual team workouts. Previously, the decision had to be made before any of that.

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There was some wariness around the league that underclassmen would flood into the draft pool in unwieldy numbers, because there was very little, if anything to lose. And a record number of them did, 117 in all. But NBA teams are under no obligation to evaluate these players or even acknowledge them.

At this year's combine, several prospects who had not signed with agents said that NBA teams wanted to know how sincere they were about the process. Some told the prospects that if they were going back to school, they did not want to waste time on them.

But the Celtics generally held a different view. Even if a player would likely return to school, Boston's executives viewed this early scouting period as a time to gather extra information that could someday be valuable.

"It doesn't bother us at all [when a player is not fully committed to the draft]," said Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge. "I'm of the belief that every player who's a sophomore or older should put their name in. Why not?"

Do-it-yourself combine

On March 17, Mason stepped in front of a national television audience and poured in 31 points in 12th-seeded Yale's first-round NCAA upset of No. 5 Baylor. The Ivy League is mostly isolated from college basketball's bright lights, so for many this was the first glimpse of this precocious sophomore and the lovable team he represented.

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Makai Mason (left) got noticed when he helped Yale upset Baylor in the NCAA Tournament.Charles Krupa

Two days later, Yale's season ended with a 71-64 loss to Duke in which Mason struggled. Still, he had done enough in that one weekend to pique curiosity, and his 16 points per game and first-team All-Ivy honors were a solid foundation, too. So on March 21, with the NCAA tourney embers still flickering, Mason announced that he would enter the draft.

There were snickers and raised eyebrows and questions about whether Mason was really serious.

But he was not doing this to be a novelty; he wanted to know where he stood in the eyes of league executives.

He realized that he was unlikely to receive one of the 70 or so invites to the scouting combine in Chicago. There, players are measured, interviewed, and put through athletic testing, while many also compete in five-on-five scrimmages. So Mason and his father put together their own combine tape.

They recorded his height (6 feet 1 inch), weight (185 pounds), and wingspan (6-4), and then went to Yale's gym and completed combine tests such as agility drills and vertical jumps, all while a camera rolled. The workout also included an array of dunks that showed unusual athleticism for a player of Mason's size.

Mason's measurables offered reasons for both doubt and intrigue.

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His wingspan would have been the fourth-shortest at the combine, just ahead of a pair of 5-8 guards, Tyler Ulis and Kay Felder. But his 37.5-inch standing vertical leap, if accurate, would have been the second-highest at the combine.

"We weren't just doing this as a hoax," Dan Mason said. "He has the athleticism."

The family uploaded the 3-minute-14-second recording to YouTube on April 21, and when Jones sent notes to NBA teams vouching for Mason, he made them aware of it. As of Thursday morning, the video had been viewed more than 4,700 times.

Extra hurdles

Of course, hoping the right league executive clicks on a link is probably not the most efficient way to navigate this process. But for someone like Mason, who is operating without an agent, logistics can be challenging.

Agents have preexisting relationships and direct lines of communication to NBA teams. Some schedule workouts and invite teams to see their clients on location; others work with teams to arrange flights and lodging for players who criss-cross the country. They are conduits and allies and even travel secretaries.

"It's really tough without an agent who kind of does your bidding for you and has connections with teams, and the teams trust the agents and the agent trusts the teams," Mason said. "I think it's hard for NBA teams to really judge whether a guy is serious about this if he doesn't have an agent."

For Mason, the process was difficult also because of restrictions put in place by the Ivy League. Without special permission, prospects were not allowed to leave campus for workouts until final exams concluded, which was May 11 at Yale.

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That left Mason just two weeks to dive into the draft process, and since the NBA combine — which he was not invited to — was held from May 11-15, his window of opportunity was even smaller. That is not to say that if he were an elite pro prospect, teams would not have found a way to make this work. But Mason was just hoping that one team would give him a look, and now there were extra hurdles.

Jones said that when the Kings and Spurs called about Mason, they wanted to know about his character and whether Jones believed he was capable of playing in the NBA. They were intrigued, Jones said, but acknowledged that they wanted to see more from Mason during his junior season.

"I think it certainly could be disappointing not to get called in for a workout, but at the same time no one knew about Makai until we played Baylor," Jones said. "So all the guys with their lists of guys to bring in, for Makai to supplant one of those guys was difficult."

This week Mason officially withdrew from the NBA Draft. He will return to Yale for his junior season. In the end, he did not seem to gain much from the predraft process. But he didn't lose anything, either. If anything, he knows he still has so much left to prove.

"Makai knows this is an uphill battle," Dan Mason said. "He knows what he's up against."


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.