Over the past two months, as the college basketball season has inched closer, Arizona State’s Jahii Carson has received Twitter messages from fans across the state.
“Just watched @Jahii_Carson1 interview, he gon bring ASU back to life!”
“#handsdown @Jahii_Carson1 is going to be PAC12 player of the year!!”
“wanna see @Jahii_Carson1 play already … best player in college right
now by far.”
The anticipation started two years ago, when Carson, then a standout guard at Mesa High, became one of the rare top Arizona high school players to shun the West’s powerhouses and commit to the Sun Devils. It detoured last season, when the NCAA ruled Carson as an academic non-qualifier, allowing him to practice with ASU but not compete.
But now Carson’s time finally is here, and the timing appears to be perfect. Since All-American James Harden left campus, coach Herb Sendek’s program has steadily declined, from an NIT appearance three seasons ago to 12 wins in 2011 to just 10 last season. The Sun Devils need an adrenaline boost, and perhaps no freshman in recent school history is more qualified to do so than the 5-foot-10 Carson, whose dunking highlight videos have captured more than 2.5 million hits on YouTube.
“I’m ready,” Carson said. “I’m champing at the bit. I’m ready to go out there and get it.”
In Carson, Sendek has a point guard who turned down scholarship offers from schools such as Arizona, Memphis, Marquette, UCLA and Washington to attend a school that lacks basketball tradition. He is a gifted athlete, a skilled scorer and a blur in the open court. Last season — because of injuries, suspensions and dismissals — ASU struggled at point guard. The Sun Devils ranked among the nation’s leaders in turnovers. Carson can fill the void, elevating the entire team.
But Sendek worries about fans and media expecting too much, too soon. The hometown hero reviving the local basketball program is an irresistible story line, but it also creates a significant amount of outside pressure to perform, sooner rather than later. As a result, Sendek reminds reporters that Carson will wear an ASU uniform this season, not a costume with an “S” on the chest.
“It’s been great in terms of attention and hype for our team and program,” Sendek said of the Carson exposure. “I think our fan base is excited and look forward to seeing him, but that has to be balanced with some level of reality as well because you almost feel these expectations growing to mythological proportions, and that’s not fair to him.”
The coach’s message to Carson: “You don’t have to be anybody other than who you are, because in the end that’s all you can be anyway. I have your back. Just be the best you can be and don’t feel in any way burdened by the expectations that some others may have for you.”
To Carson’s credit, he seems unfazed by the attention, secure in his decision to attend ASU and confident he can be an immediate difference-maker. He admits there’s a swagger to him on the basketball court, one that says “Doubt me at your own risk.” It’s not all talk.
“A lot of people miss the most important part of his game, and that’s being able to get everyone involved,” teammate Carrick Felix said. “He’s such a tremendous passer, and his basketball IQ is so high. He’s willing to learn every single day in practice, and it’s just crazy to see how one person can change the whole team.”
Carson has a self-awareness that is uncommon for young players. Ask him what part of his game needs improvement and he explains how a mid-range jump shot would make him difficult to defend on the pick-and-roll. Ask him which NBA point guards he admires, he doesn’t just list names, but reasons. Denver’s Ty Lawson because of his ability to get in the paint. San Antonio’s Tony Parker because of his ability to change speeds. The Lakers’ Steve Nash simply because of his presence.
“In high school, I just had one speed. That was just to go fast,” Carson said. “To get defenders off balance, I think me changing gears, changing my speed is going to be something that can help me get to the basket a little easier. Having a mid-range jump shot will keep the defense (off-balance) and not have them commit to every move I do. And having a nice little 3-ball, I think that’s going to keep the defense honest. Once I get those things going, my teammates will be open.”
At the same time, Carson is aware of the expectations that come with playing at home. Just more than a year ago, while playing with the U-19 men’s national team, he discussed the matter with roommate Joe Jackson, who has much experience in the area. Growing up in the college hoops hotbed of Memphis, Jackson signed with the University of Memphis in 2010. The marriage has had its ups and downs, and at one point Jackson reportedly considered transferring.
“The excitement level is ridiculous, but it goes both ways,” Jackson said in a telephone interview. “It can lead you to other stress, too. … When you’re home, you got friends, family, everybody wants to tell you what you need to do and how you need to do it. It can be hard to (block all that out) and still play your role on the team.”
Tempe is not Memphis, but the pressure may be similar for Carson. Those who know him best insist the point guard will be just fine. Mesa High coach Shane Burcar points out that Carson has prepared for this most of his life. He has confidence and charisma, his former coach said. He’ll be neither overwhelmed nor intimidated. Will there be a transition? Of course. But it won’t be steep after spending last season practicing with the team.
“Jahii knows how to block things out and to take advice from certain people,” Burcar said. “He has a great filter.”
So as his first season inched closer, Carson kept re-tweeting the well-wishes from many of his 6,231 Twitter followers. At ASU’s local media day, he told reporters he has matured since leaving high school, and that he’s ready to take the Sun Devils “over the hump.’” Not long later, he posted his own Twitter message, thanking everyone for all the attention.
“I won’t disappoint trust me.”