BY CORY WOODROOF
When you look at the early season stat sheet for Grace Christian Academy point guard Mason McKnatt, you might be prone to a double take.
In just four games this November, the standout shooter has amassed 121 points in just four games (41, 29, 16, 35), helping the Lions get to 2-2 on the new year.
He’s getting close to hitting 2,000 points for his career (he’s about 600 points shy of the mark), with a senior season still waiting for fall 2019.
It’s easy to tell why he’s the spark plug that makes this offense go and a big reason the team claimed a district title last winter.
“My teammates have done a good job of getting me the ball,” McKnatt says, humbly, of his start. “They all know their roles, and they’ve been doing them well.”
To go off for 40+ for your season opener is particularly impressive, and of course, doesn’t come when you’re just in your typical regular season habit.
“Once I hit a couple shots in a row, then I just feel something,” McKnatt says. “I feel like I’m in a different type of zone than I do from just a normal game…something’s different.
“I spend a lot of time just working on my game…confidence also [helps].”
His penchant for threes comes from a popular standard of play, that of Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry, who translates his storied habit of nailing three-point shots in practice into in-game success. He also tries to study former Suns great Steve Nash.
McKnatt spends his offseason on an EAB travel team in Nashville and takes a few times a day to go through the routines necessary for on-court success, the practicing, exercising, general prep.
If you’re going to average 30.25 points a game, that’s what it takes.
He said hopes this hard work and on-court success turns into a Division 1 college offer and perhaps a career overseas to play professionally one day.
In the interim, Mason says he wants to be a better leader for his team and help improve everyone’s play around him.
“I just want to set an example for other people,” he says.
Though, he’s not the only McKnatt helping his team power ahead to victory.
Mason’s dad Len is the varsity boys’ head coach, a former state-winning coach at Battle Ground Academy (2014) who left after that banner year to build up GCA’s basketball program and athletics department as a whole (he’s also GCA’s athletics director).
A Memphis native, he attended Harding Academy in Arkansas for grade school and played professional baseball at Henderson State for a short while before opting to return to a bigger town.
He then transferred to Christian Brothers University to walk on the basketball and baseball teams before earning a partial scholarship. He then became a graduate assistant after his playing days were over for the basketball team with Charlie Leonard.
He then transitioned to BGA in the mid-90s to be an assistant on the boys’ coaching staff. That grew into a role as the high school girls’ coach for about eight years and a longtime position on the baseball coaching staff under Brad Myers (now at GCA).
His last four years with the Wildcats saw him lead the varsity squad for four seasons, capped by the title run. Lipscomb standout Nathan Moran helped lead that squad.
When Myers came to GCA, he recommended McKnatt for the boys’ job, and the latter became instantly interested in what the school was about (a growing Christian environment). He was at BGA for 19 years and has been at GCA since 2014.
What are his thoughts on his son’s hot start? Not what you’d initially think.
“I think he would be the first to tell you, though, three games in…he has not played up to his potential,” the elder McKnatt said. “He shoots the ball well, so he can score in bunches. He would tell you right now, as crazy as it sounds, he’s not shooting it great. He’s probably shooting about 30-percent from the three-point line right now, and he’s typically a mid-40s.”
Len McKnatt absolutely recognizes that, most nights, the defensive game plan for the opponent squares in on Mason, and that creates a situation where tough shots are the ones that come down. You learn to get others involved and distribute more in those roles, the coach says.
“He’s gotten off to a decent start, but he’s got a lot more to offer.”
McKnatts balance relationships as they try to achieve on-court success
If you ever notice Mason getting a bit chirpy with the head coach on the sideline, don’t worry. They’re good.
Fathers and sons who are on the same ball team are eternally bound to the tensest of relationships in action.
Dad sees the relationship between the father/coach and son/player as going one of two ways in the sporting world.
Sometimes, you’re the coaches’ favorite. Other times, not so much. The elder McKnatt says he and Mason fall into that latter category.
“I think most people would tell you I’m tougher on him than I probably am anybody else,” he said. “But he’s also a good player, and he needs to be able to be coachable, and we’re still working through that, ‘Hey, out here, it’s player/coach, it’s not father/son,’ and then, when the game’s over, we’re back to father/son. But it’s hard to separate those two. It really is…I wouldn’t trade it for the world, [though].”
He said doesn’t want to be seen as giving his son any special favors just as much as he wants to uphold the father/son relationship.
“It’s very tough,” Mason McKnatt said with a smile about playing for his pops. “It’s fun when we do well; it’s quite the opposite when we’re not doing well. We get into it [from] time to time in the middle of the game.
“I don’t like to say, ‘yes sir,’ and like to talk back, and that’s kind of tough…we’ve both been working on it…how he gets on me, sometimes, too much, and I talk back too much, so we’re trying to limit that.”
Len McKnatt used the same answer has is son to describe the dynamic, sans a contraction.
“It is very tough,” the elder McKnatt said. “We’re both very passionate about what we do. I don’t realize this sometimes, but I feel like he’s been around me for a long, long time, and he was around at BGA when I had some really, really, really successful teams.
“He puts a lot of pressure on himself, and then you throw in to the fact that he doesn’t want to disappoint Dad or his teammates, and it can be very tough. He’s one of those kids that he knows when he hasn’t done something right, and of course, I’m usually very vocal.”
He recognizes the paradox of the situation: Mason might respond to the chagrin of another coach without a lot of reaction. It’s different when you’re on the end of ire with the one giving you a ride home.
“We have spent countless, countless hours in the gym together, whether it be me rebounding for him, or whatever,” McKnatt said.“We love each other a whole lot, but we do have some of these [instances] as well. It can be tough.”
Though, those on-court tiffs don’t always come without their own check.
“My wife lets me know, usually, when we’ve had those [instances],” he said with a laugh.
Basketball has been around the McKnatts for a long while, with dad Len’s college career pouring over to coaching and into his son’s interest.
Mason jokes that his mother told him that, one of his first days out of the hospital, he went to one of his dad’s basketball games when he was coaching the girls’ team at BGA.
“I’ve just been surrounded by it my whole life,” Mason says.
The ultimate goal for any sports team is, of course, to be the last one standing, and the younger McKnatt remembers when his dad found that success with the Wildcats just a few years ago.
Of course, it’d mean even more to hoist that trophy with his coach who goes by another name.
“I just want to experience that with my dad,” Mason says.
Lions pushing ahead for more success
The Lions 2-2 start might not be indicative of the potential this team has down the road. They got an upset win over LEAD Academy in the Class A District 7 finals this past winter and beat Cornersville in the first round of the region championship before falling to Cascade in the semifinals.
But the Lions return four out of five starters (guys like center Cole Scott, who averages a double-double just about a night) and are working to push even further in the postseason.
“Our goals [are that] we obviously want to win the district championship again, and we want to win the region championship,” Mason said. “I feel like we have a shot to make it to substate. I feel like, if we get there, we have a possibility to make it to state. That’s obviously our main goal.”
Coach McKnatt feels that his team has started off a bit slowly this year, but then again, it’s similar to last year’s squad that went 12-16 in the regular season before catching fire late and punching in a 6-2 district finish.
“We’ve got four kids back that have a lot of experience, that have played a lot of minutes,” he said. “[We’re] just trying to find some pieces. The older guys [are just] trying to figure out their new roles this year.
“I would say that if we’re playing good basketball, that we definitely have a chance to be one of the better teams in our district. I would love for us to host a region tournament game again next year, and we would obviously love to put ourselves back in the region semifinal game…we have a long way to go before we can even think that.”
GCA hasn’t quite hit a decade yet of fielding teams, and its current iteration of basketball is one of the school’s marquee eras of the sporting.
Mason McKnatt says he hopes the younger children on campus will see the high school team as a beacon of what they can achieve to when they come of age.
“It’s been kind of fun just setting the foundation,” the younger McKnatt said. “[It helps] build the future.”
He mentions that the sense of community is strong at Grace Christian.
“It’s a really tight-knit school,” he says. “I like keeping up with, like, the fifth and sixth-grade basketball games and their basketball team…we all try to go to their games, and they try to come to ours.”
Header photo by Woodroof, in-game photos provided by McKnatts.