When Bill Walton’s traveling road show swung by Tempe last month, Walton had a 20-minute chat with Arizona State freshman Jahii Carson about the future. He strongly suggested that Carson stay in school. Then again …
“Bill Walton also told LeBron James to go to college out of high school,” Carson said, drawing a chuckle.
With UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad almost certain to leave for the NBA following this year, Carson is the next logical first-year candidate to go. The two have been the best wing and the best point guard in the Pac-12, respectively, are among the eight finalists for the national freshman of the year award and rank 2-3 in the Pac-12 in scoring in league games, with Carson at 17.9 points and Muhammad at 17.5.
But it is not time for that decision, Carson said, and it is not on his radar as he prepares for his first trip to Tucson to play Arizona in the final game of the regular season Saturday afternoon.
“Hopefully it comes, maybe this year, maybe next year,” he said of the time to try the NBA.
“It’s just going to be whether I’m ready to go or not. I don’t want to go too early and be one of those guys who don’t get an opportunity to shine in the NBA, and I don’t want to be one of those guys who stays four years (in college) and doesn’t shine in the NBA because they took too long. I have to look out for what is in the best interest of me, and I think my coaching staff has that for me, too, so at the end of the season, we will sit down and discuss it.”
Carson, 5-foot-10 and in constant motion, has created quite a buzz in his first season, and he is the major reason ASU (20-10, 9-8) has almost doubled its victory total from last year, when he was academically ineligible. Carson, by the way, had a 4.0 GPA this fall. And not only does he score, but he creates so much more by drawing defenses to him. Carrick Felix, Jordan Bachynski and Jonathan Gilling have better numbers this season in large part because of Carson.
His 32-point game at Washington was the second-highest scoring game of the Pac-12 season, and his 13 field goals that night were the most in the conference all season. Gilling had six 3-pointers against the Huskies that night and six more against UCLA last weekend because the defenses were otherwise occupied.
“You’re asking me?” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said with a laugh when asked about Carson. “Obviously he is very talented. But the thing that struck me watching him up close was the poise that he had. He played the game like he was a fifth-year senior.
“He just plays with a level of confidence out there that a lot of players just don’t have. He’s already talented, a lot more talented than a lot of players. But when you go out there and you are playing with that type of confidence and assurance and swagger, boy, that presents a lot of problems for the other team, but it really helps the team that you are on.”
Romar had a similar small but confident guard a couple years back in Isaiah Thomas. The 5-foot-9 Thomas left Washington after his junior year in 2011, and he quieted doubters by averaging 11.5 points a game for Sacramento last year. He is averaging 12.7 this year.
“I can’t help but look at the impact (Carson) has made on their team, and it reminds me of when we had Isaiah as a freshman. How we had almost the same team from the year before, but we were 16-17. Then we come back and Isaiah is there, and we were able to win the league and win 26 games. He just changed the face of our team, and I think that is what Jahii has done,” Romar said.
Arizona State coach Herb Sendek changed his offense and added veteran NBA coach and point guard guru Eric Musselman to accommodate Carson this season. Even playing at tempo, Carson was uncertain how his first college season would unfold.
“I had no clue. I was just going to try to come out here and prepare myself for the physicality of the Pac and just focus on the speed of the Pac. I was trying to come and play my game. As the season came along, I adjusted. I saw openings that I didn’t see before and I just blossomed as the season progressed,” Carson said.
Sendek and Musselman saw it that way, too. Carson is basically a coach on the floor, with the motion offense starting – and often ending – with him. He picked up a few things along the way. He never had to shoot a pull-up jumper in high school because he could almost always get to the rim, but he has developed an 8-, 10-foot floater to combat interior defenders.
“He just keeps getting better and better,” Musselman said. “His confidence has grown. His shooting has gotten better, his ability to read defenses coming off of pick-and-rolls. His decision-making has gotten better. The most impressive thing is how confident he is in late-game” situations.
The high pick-and-roll, with center Jordan Bachynski setting a screen at the top of the key, has become an ASU staple; it’s a play the Phoenix Suns used often with Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire. If Carson does not get the ball to the basket, as he did with regularity at Washington, he finds open teammates on the wing.
“He’s done a good job of using the screen, rejecting the screen. Now he’s starting to shoot behind the screen. He’s adding all parts to the pick-and-roll game that you need as a point guard,” Musselman said.
Added Bachynski: “I knew he was going to be good. I didn’t think it would be this quick. Me and him are starting to click, almost like a Stoudemire-Nash combo. I’m not saying I’m that good. He’s able to take it to the rim, and he’s able to take so many defenders that he has proven he can finish — it just opens everything else up.”
Some Pac-12 coaches saw Carson’s coming-out party coming. Oregon State coach Craig Robinson received a commitment from Carson when he was junior at Mesa High, but Carson later reopened the recruiting process and chose Arizona State.
“He’s terrific. He’s got good basketball IQ. He’s got athleticism. He’s got nerve. All of that makes for a really good player,” Robinson said. “I just love the way he is breaking down defenses. I like scoring point guards, as you guys know, and it was disappointing not getting him here, but I guess you can have a moral victory in knowing that you can at least evaluate talent.”
For all the good reviews, Cal’s Mike Montgomery is not sure if Carson is prepared for the NBA at this stage.
“He doesn’t shoot well enough right yet. His quickness to the basket is terrific, and he’s been a great playmaker, but at the end of the day, you have to shoot the ball,” said Montgomery, who spent three seasons with Golden State.
“It’s a skill game at the NBA level. You look at Isaiah Thomas, he’s shot the ball. Nate Robinson (5-9) shoots the ball. Most of the guys can really shoot the ball, and then they use their quickness to get to the basket and set up other people. It is hard for a guy who is small to get to the basket and be able to finish.”
But, as Carson said, that is fodder for a later discussion. So is a possible NCAA tournament bid. Carson wants to make his first trip to Tucson memorable, whether the pick-and-roll is a staple or not. ASU suffered its worst loss of the Pac-12 season against Arizona, a 71-54 decision, when Carson picked up his fourth foul midway through the second half and was less aggressive thereafter, although he did have 22 points and four assists.
“I’m going to be smarter this game, use my head more a little bit more, attack a little bit more and try to force the defense to play a little to play more defense,” Carson said.
“I want to go down there and make a statement. First time for the people in Tucson to get to watch me play and watch our team play. It is a different style of basketball we are playing this year. I definitely want to go down at get an upset.”