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Destini Mason remembers the exact moment she realized she wanted to play in the WNBA.
As a young girl, the Moreno Valley native would go outside and play basketball with her father.
“My dad used to take me outside and get me on his shoulders and make me throw the ball up there,” Mason said. “It was a normal sized basket, but I was so little, it was like, ‘I can’t score with this big ball that’s bigger than my head.’”
Then, at five years old, she made her first basket all by herself and instantly knew basketball was the right path for her.
“My brother used to always say, ‘Look at the front of the rim and just shoot it.’ I did it one time and it went in and I was so excited,” Mason said. “I ran in and told my dad, ‘I made it! I made it!’ Right there, I was like ‘I want to do this.’”
Just like that, Mason was enthralled with the game of basketball.
“I was outside all the time … all the time,” Mason said. “Every chance I could get, I was playing with guys and playing with people older than me.”
Fast-forward to college, where Mason is playing for the UCSB women’s basketball team. The passionate little kid who grew up wanting to play professionally is still inside her and evident to all around her.
“She’s the first one in the gym most of the time and the last one out of here, always grabbing the freshmen to spend extra time with them on their skills,” Head Coach Carlene Mitchell said. “She’s just a basketball junkie. That’s the fun part of it — she eats, breathes, lives and is passionate about the game.”
Now in her senior year, Mason is experiencing a breakout season. While not known for her offense in previous years, Mason is one of the three seniors anchoring the Gaucho attack this year, which has seen tremendous improvement from previous seasons. The senior guard ranks third on the team in scoring at 12.8 points per game, shooting an impressive 42.8 percent from the field.
“Destini on the court is not too different than Destini off the court — just very, very high energy,” teammate Nicole Nesbit said. “She’s a very passionate player. She’s very into the game. You can see it all over her face when she plays.”
Entering this season, Mason’s career-high was 13 points. That total has been shattered on four separate occasions, the most recent coming during UCSB’s first Big West game of the year at rival Cal Poly where Mason totaled 24 points. She also broke her career-high in field goals made as she went 10-17 from the field.
The Cal Poly game foreshadowed good things to come during conference play for Mason. Despite the team’s struggle, Mason has continued to improve during Big West play.
Mason increased her field goal percentage to 46.9 percent and has elevated her game from long range, knocking down six three-pointers, which is just one shy of her total from nonconference play. She’s also upped her percentage from behind the arc from 31.8 percent to 35.3 percent.
“Destini is a very talented player and I think she’s definitely starting to come into her own and feel confident, especially on the offensive end,” Nesbit said. “She is very good in transition; she’s a good attacker. She has good size and can usually post up smaller guards. She has a very nice mid-range jumper. She can shoot the three as well, but doesn’t as often. She’s a complete offensive player and I think she’s starting to believe that.”
However, Mason is much more than a scorer. It may not show up in the box scores, but since her arrival to Santa Barbara, Mason has served as the defensive stopper for UCSB.
“I think I just have a niche for defense,” Mason said. “Defense is just really about heart, which I have, and not wanting to get scored on, which I have, and (then some) positioning, technique and strength.”
Yet, possibly the biggest asset Mason has given to the Gauchos this season is her versatility. With an undersized roster, Mitchell has often moved the 5’8’’ Mason to the power forward position, although Mason has been known to play positions one through four all season long.
“I like watching the game and I think that’s why, being a four player this year, it came kind of easy because I watch it so much,” Mason said. “It just came natural because I knew their positioning and what they were looking for.”
The transition has actually aided Mason who, as a guard, leads the team in rebounding with 6.0 boards per game. She also averages 0.9 steals and 0.5 blocks per game.
“Just having so many players (from Rutgers) that are in the [WNBA], I tell her that she has to be great at everything,” Mitchell said. “You can’t just do one thing well to be a WNBA player, so I just challenge her every day to be a complete player and not just one-dimensional and I think her versatility will give her a look.”
Altogether, Mason seems to be making the strongest case she can to the WNBA. Add all of Mason’s accomplishments together along with the fact that she serves as the team’s vocal leader this season and Mason easily makes a case for the most improved player under Mitchell’s reign.
“She’s one of those that it’s the reason you coach, and you smile because I can remember walking into this gym for my first skill workouts and I saw her sitting in the corner, but at that point she had asked for her release and was transferring from UCSB,” Mitchell said. “That’s what you want from young women is for them to mature and grow and be independent and confident in who they are as an individual and as a basketball player. So, you have to smile for her now being out there confident, the jokester and the ultimate leader.”
If looking closely, Mason’s game actually resembles one of the great players to play in the WNBA and one of her role models: Deanna Nolan, the three-time WNBA champion and 2006 Finals MVP. Both are long guards that have incredible athleticism and while not the flashiest players, make a substantial mark on every game.
“[Nolan] would jump out of the gym. The elevation on her jumper was ungodly,” Mitchell said. “She also played with that little cocky edge, which I’m okay with, and I think all the great players have somewhat. Some people could misread it, but to me it shows she’s passionate; she plays with a level of excitement that you don’t take that away from players.”
But as a student of the game, Nolan isn’t the only player that can be seen in Mason’s game. When looking closely, you might see pieces of a pair of L.A. Laker guards.
“I copied a lot of people, but that’s okay because that’s how you get better,” Mason said. “I take bits and pieces of a lot of different players, so [Nolan] definitely with the way she flows with the offense with the ball. Also, Kobe; I like his fadeaway, so I do his fadeaway and Nick Young, just the way he gets excited about every shot.”
While earning a spot in the WNBA is extremely difficult with the limited number of teams and roster spots, Mitchell believes Mason’s ability to be an all-around player makes her dream a possible reality.
“I think she’ll definitely get the looks, in whether she gets training camps or invites to any of the combines,” Mitchell said. “Never give up on your dreams if that’s her dream and we’ll help her keep working hard and hopefully she’ll have a chance at some point.”
A version of this article appeared on page 10 of Feb. 5th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of the Daily Nexus.