TEMPE, Ariz. — It should come as no surprise to learn Jahii Carson desperately wanted to be on the floor last season amid the Arizona State men’s basketball team’s forgettable 10-21 campaign. He was widely regarded as the player to inject life into a struggling program but instead had to sit out a year while academically ineligible.
Carson used the lost season due to academic ineligibility as a learning experience, pinpointing his own weaknesses and analyzing those of the team as a whole, and believes he emerged better prepared for the college level.
“I think I’ll have a huge improvement,” Carson said. “I have a year of weight room advantage. I have a year of analyzing the game. … I think that I’ll be a totally different player — a totally more intelligent player and a better player.”
ASU coach Herb Sendek admits the absence of Carson, the program’s most touted recruit since James Harden, was a significant blow, but he’s quick to praise the way Carson used his time.
“Obviously we would have loved to have had him on the court,” Sendek said. “It would have helped us a great deal, but any time you’re faced with a situation like that it’s important that you make the best of it. I’ve been particularly impressed with the grace and dignity with which Jahii has handled that.”
It wasn’t easy for Carson to watch teammates struggle. The up-tempo offense designed for Carson to run didn’t work with the personnel in place. ASU lost all but six Pac-12 games and didn’t notch consecutive wins until the final two weekends of the season.
What was harder for Carson to watch was the exodus of teammates that took place late in the season and after it ended. Keala King left the program in January following a disciplinary suspension, and Chanse Creekmur and Kyle Cain announced intentions to transfer after the season. Then leading scorer Trent Lockett announced he, too, would transfer to be closer to his mother, who was diagnosed with cancer, and has since landed at Marquette.
“It was hard for me to see my teammates struggle as far as guys leaving the team (and) guys just not stepping up as I think a teammate should’ve,” Carson said. “It was just hard for me to watch that, especially on the sidelines.”
While Carson couldn’t be on the court in games, he was able to practice the entire season. This allowed him to get comfortable with teammates, Sendek’s system and the level of play in college. Carson said he matured as a player and a person.
The practice time also afforded him the opportunity to analyze his own game in a way he had not been able to previously.
“I was always a guy who liked to work on my weaknesses, but in high school and AAU I was always a pretty dominant player,” Carson said. “So it was harder for me to step back and say ‘This is what I need to work on,’ because the things that I was doing were so effective.”
When Carson did just that, he saw a few things. He says he needs to improve his ability with his left hand. He continues to work on his mid-range jumper, something he called the “most effective” tool he could have. And from the bench, Carson studied opponents’ defensive and offensive sets, learning to read both without having to also pay against them.
While discussing his various points of emphasis last season, Carson keeps coming back to strength and conditioning. Even without playing, it was easy for him to realize opponents at the college level were much different physically than the competition he regularly faced at Mesa High or in AAU play. At 5-foot-10, Carson is smaller than the average point guard.
Carson estimates that he has added about 15 pounds of muscle since arriving at Arizona State, when he weighed in at roughly 160 pounds.
“I’m a little guy,” Carson said. “I can’t go in the paint and dunk on everybody every time.”
Sendek said he has found Carson eager to listen and learn. Sendek and Carson will get the chance to work together more this summer thanks to new NCAA rules that allows coaches to work with players for two hours per week as long as certain academic requirements are met.
While many players often enrolled in summer school on their own and continued workouts through the summer, they were not allowed any contact with their coaches.
“I think most importantly the summer sessions serve as a way to stay connected with your players,” Sendek said. “There’s some real value in that over the course of the offseason. … It provides a really good forum to stay connected and communicate.”
Sendek said Carson has been void of any sense of entitlement, a common concern among highly touted recruits.
Carson explains his mentality by saying he wants to be a traditional point guard, involving his teammates first, which ultimately allows him to do more.
“Growing up, my dad always said a point guard gets his team involved first and lets the game come to him,” Carson said. “I try to get my teammates involved to keep the defense honest. Once my teammates are involved there’s no way (opponents) can contain me and contain them.”
It is not lost on Carson that some fans expect him to be the linchpin to a turnaround in the program’s fortunes. In some ways, he enjoys the expectations, using them to keep himself motivated. But in other ways, he wants to deflect the attention and just be part of the team.
Now, Carson is looking only to the future. With his collegiate debut roughly five months away, Carson is nothing but optimistic. Even with last season’s results and the players who have departed, Carson has no doubt ASU will surprise spectators and opponents alike.
“I think that everybody’s head is screwed on tight and everybody wants to be at the top of the Pac-12,” Carson said. “Everybody has high expectations.”