After the beginning of his career at Arizona State was put on hold for a year, Jahii Carson has been playing on fast-forward on his way to becoming one of college basketball’s breakout stars.
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With no Olympic or World Championship tournament scheduled for 2013 â€“ and therefore no “Dream Team” to unleash on the rest of the planet â€“ this was a relatively quiet summer for USA Basketball. So when plans were announced in July for USAB to relocate its headquarters from Colorado Springs, Colo., to Tempe, Ariz., the story went largely unnoticed by the national media.
What the relocation means is that, after construction is complete on a new training center and offices near the campus of Arizona State University, the eyes of the basketball world will regularly turn to Tempe to witness the future of the game. The entire project should take about two years.
But if Jahii Carson gets his way, Tempe will be the center of attention much sooner than that.
Entering his redshirt sophomore season at ASU, Carson is one of the best point guards in college basketball. At the same time, he may also be the nation’s most underrated player and best-kept secret.
“To be honest, I hadn’t even heard of him before I got here,” admits Sun Devils guard Jermaine Marshall, who transferred to ASU from Penn State in July and watches “SportsCenter” as much as any other 23-year-old athlete.
“I think with Arizona State not being seen as a hotbed for basketball, then with me sitting out my first year, my buzz was a little lower than it should’ve been,” says the 5-11 Carson. “It makes me go harder because I want my team’s name out there. I want to have the spotlight on us. So I try to dominate. It’s giving me a chip on my shoulder to go even harder.”
As a redshirt freshman, Carson averaged 18.5 points and 5.1 assists while leading the Sun Devils to the second round of the postseason National Invitation Tournament. Along the way, he dropped 32 points against Washington; had 30 points, seven dimes and four steals against Creighton; scored 34 against Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament; and went for 22 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in an opening-round NIT victory over Detroit.
It was enough to earn Carson a spot on the All-Pac-12 First Team and Pac-12 Co-Freshman of the Year, which he shared with UCLA wing Shabazz Muhammad (now a rookie with the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves). But a case easily could have been made that Carson was the conference’s most valuable player. He led a team that finished 10-21 the season before his debut to a 22-13 record, putting ASU back in the postseason after a two-year hiatus.
To get a clearer picture of how important Carson is at Arizona State, look at it this way: The Sun Devils have taken on an identity reminiscent of the ’00-01 Philadelphia 76ers, and Carson plays the role of Allen Iverson.
Last season’s squad had a shotblocking giant anchoring the defense (7-2 Jordan Bachynski swatted 3.4 shots per game), a collection of blue-collar types on the wings (including Cleveland Cavaliers’ draft pick Carrick Felix), and a respected, passionate, bookish veteran coach (Herb Sendek) making it all work.
But the team’s fate ultimately rests in the quick hands and on the fast feet of one dynamic spark plug in the backcourt whose ability to get into the lane and create buckets is less offensive strategy and more of a survival tactic.
“I won’t say getting to the basket is easy, but I get there about 70 percent of the time (on isolations), and pretty much anytime I wanted to on ball screens,” says Carson, who put on 10 pounds of muscle over the summer to get his weight up to 180. “Me getting to the basket is a given, and we set up the offense around that.”
He’s able to get there with a first step that belongs in an instructional video alongside that of John Wall, a knowledge of angles and momentum that favors 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, and an explosive athleticism that resembles rising Phoenix Suns star Eric Bledsoe.
“Throw it up anywhere near the rim, I’m gonna go get it,” says Carson, whose YouTube history dating back to high school is full of alley-oop dunks and acrobatic layups.
Carson’s playmaking ability as a scorer and passer will be tested even more this season. He is Arizona State’s only returning double-digit scorer, after Felix went pro and guard Evan Gordon (10.1 ppg) transferred to Indiana. Carson will be the focus of opponents’ game plans from Day 1.
“Teams were out to stop me last year,” says Carson. “Every night somebody was coming after me, which was something I wasn’t used to. In high school, teams don’t really scout you like that and know all your tendencies. I was kind of surprised (in college) at how much teams would know me and how fast they could make adjustments. So I have to be that much more mentally and physically strong this year.”
Born and raised in the Phoenix area, Carson starred at Mesa High School and eventually made the short list of homegrown basketball phenoms in the state, next to the likes of Fat Lever, Sean Elliott, Mike Bibby, Channing Frye and Jerryd Bayless. He developed a big-brother-little-brother bond with Bayless, now a sixth man with the Memphis Grizzlies, and a mentor-mentee relationship with ASU legend Eddie House, who won an NBA championship with the Boston Celtics.
“All the players who are dominant in Arizona know about each other,” says Carson. “(The state) not being a hotbed, it’s rare that somebody is dominating. Jerryd, Eddie, Fat Lever, myself, we’ve all been in a similar situation. There’s definitely love shown. Like, Jerryd, he wants to help every last person coming out of Arizona.”
Carson committed to Arizona State (who had been recruiting him since the eighth grade) in 2010, becoming the program’s biggest local catch in recent memory and its most high-profile recruit since James Harden came to Tempe from Artesia H.S. in California.
But before he could step on the court, the NCAA ruled Carson academically ineligible when his ACT score turned up one-tenth of a point shy of what he needed to qualify. He would be allowed to stay on scholarship and practice with the team, but would have to sit out every game of the 2011-12 season.
Presented with a few options, Carson decided against going to a fifth-year prep school or pursuing a pro career and chose to remain with the Sun Devils.
“I thought it was the mature thing for me to do,” Carson says. “But it was frustrating. It was a long season. I knew my team was struggling, and that I was supposed to be running the show. They’re out there without a point guard while I’m watching from home. I was supposed to be out there helping my teammates, and I was letting them down.”
The redshirt year had its benefits, however.
First and foremost, Carson was able to get his academic house in order. And in what reads like an opposites-day regime for most college freshmen, he stopped partying as much, started going to bed earlier and spent less time on social media.
Being banned from games helped Carson’s game, too.
“Instead of being an incoming freshman (last season) who’d only played against high schoolers, I was playing against college players every day. Instead of 6-5 shotblockers, I’m dealing with seven-foot shotblockers. Making the college three-pointer versus the high school three. There’s the strength factor, the physicality, the longer court, the 35-second shot clock. It helped me out tremendously, and I wouldn’t have gotten that if I’d been a high schooler fresh out of the water going into the Pac-12.”
When Carson was turned loose on the rest of the country, he instantly made Arizona State relevant again. The Sun Devils won their first four games, including a rout of Arkansas, and in their fifth game made a decent showing in a loss to nationally-ranked Creighton while Carson had his 30-point breakout.
“When you have a year off like he had, you can get bored or you can get better,” says ESPN analyst and former D-1 coach Fran Fraschilla. “The fact that Jahii came in and averaged 18 points and five assists, that’s an indication that he got himself ready to play. That’s a good sign. From the standpoint of an NBA team, that puts him on the radar. Getting off to such a quick start despite missing an entire season of basketball, that can only help him.”
The final game of Carson’s season saw him score 20 against eventual NIT champion Baylor, but he also committed six turnovers, shot just 5-for-13 from the field, and fouled out in the loss. He could have left for the NBA and likely would have been drafted, but going out on a sour note stuck with him as the early-entry deadline neared.
“I talked to James and Jerryd and some other guys who had gone through the (draft) process, and it just wasn’t the best thing for me,” says Carson. “My team can be that much better and go to the NCAA Tournament this year. I want to be here for that. And they (the pros) want to see guys win games and be leaders, so that will help me in the long run, too.”
Carson spent time this summer as a college counselor at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas, the Deron Williams Skills Academy in New Jersey, and the adidas Nations camp in California. When he was home in Arizona, he got up every morning for 8 a.m. workouts before his summer-school classes. (“Grinding the whole summer,” as Carson puts it.) He worked on driving to his left and finishing with his left hand. He worked on his midrange jump shot. He worked on shooting threes off the dribble. Anything to add to his repertoire to keep defenses off-balance.
“He’s one of the quickest guys in college basketball. He has blinding speed and quickness,” says Fraschilla, who coached Carson at adidas Nations. “That part I knew coming in just watching him from afar. After getting a chance to spend four or five days with Jahii, I was impressed by his competitiveness and his toughness. He’s a leader and he’s very coachable.”
Fraschilla, one of ESPN’s go-to NBA Draft experts, says Carson can elevate his stock if he improves his outside shooting and decision-making in the pick-and-roll. He expects Carson to be one of the three or four best point guards in college this season.
Despite losing Felix and Gordon, Carson’s prediction that Arizona State will be better in ’13-14 looks good on paper. The Sun Devils added Marshall, who scored 15.3 points per game at Penn State last season and is enrolled at ASU as a graduate student, and 6-5 Michigan State transfer Brandan Kearney, who should be eligible in December. Bachynski spent the offseason polishing his offensive game while playing for Team Canada at the World University Games. In August, the Sun Devils went on an exhibition tour of China that helped bond them as a group.
“Overall, our team camaraderie is better than last year,” Carson says. “We have guys who know what it takes to get to the tournament. If we play hard, I know we can win a lot of games.”
That said, it’s no secret Arizona State’s success depends mostly on Carson.
“I’m not sure how teams will scout me or defend me. But at the same time, they have no clue how my game is gonna change,” says Carson. “They don’t know what I’m gonna do.”
In due time, however, what Jahii Carson does on the basketball court won’t be a mystery to anyone anymore.
Is Carson an NBA point guard?
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