TEMPE, Ariz. — The best point guard in the Pac-12 takes a short pass, puts the ball through his legs left-right-left, and rises to shoot a three from the right wing. Nothing but net. Jahii Carson does that four more times after a Monday practice, then calls it a day.
Seven games into his college career at Arizona State, Carson has been about that efficient.
Carson ranks among the top college freshmen with an 18.0 scoring average and also contributes five assists per game. He became the fourth freshman in school history to score 30 points in a game when he did that in an 87-73 loss to No. 14 Creighton in the championship game of the Las Vegas Invitational.
Most noticeably, Carson has stepped up in crucial times, the linchpin in Arizona State’s 6-1 start. A Carson tweet from Las Vegas summed it up well: “I couldn’t picture my first college basketball season goin any better.”
But neither the numbers nor the hype have a place in Carson’s world these days.
“I definitely have the confidence in myself to think I am one of the best point guards in the country, let alone the conference,” Carson said this week. “That is just something I have personally. I like to go out and be the best distributor and operator and coach on the floor that I can be. I just try to go out and make statement for me and my team.
“A lot of people underestimate us. For us doing as well as we are doing, I think that shuts a lot of people up.”
Carson was a top-35 recruit out of Mesa High, and he oozes the confidence of the superior-skilled. But even he acknowledged he was not sure how the transition to college would go, especially because he was forced to miss last season for academic reasons.
“I think I’ve exceeded them,” Carson said of his expectations.
“I tried to come out with a lot of intensity and tried to show I’m an elite player. I was just trying to come out there and be comfortable and play my role. I definitely have a lot more confidence now that I have played more games. As time moves on, as we play more games, I’ve become more comfortable and more comfortable with my teammates as well. I think my teammates are happy with the way I am playing. I think it has taken us over the hump.”
Junior center Jordan Bachynski is a believer.
“I love playing with Jahii,” he said. “He’s not only quick and can take you off the dribble, but he sees the court better than anyone I know. I love having a true point guard. Last year we struggled a little bit … it’s nice to have a player who has played point guard his whole career, who sees the court so well.
“Jahii is a pro. He comes every day, every practice, with a mindset that he is going to take it to someone. He knows what he can do, and I think he is hungry because he had to sit out last year. That’s tough for any player. He didn’t choose that. It was put upon him. He just came hungry. He’s been hungry every practice.”
Carson does his eating in games. He scored 20 points against Florida A&M in his second game, 21 against Cornell in his third and then 30 in his fifth. He has made better than 45 percent of his field goal attempts and about 75 percent of his free throws. Because he often has the ball late in the games, his free-throw accuracy has helped the Sun Devils build on leads or keep them close.
“He has played spectacular basketball,” ASU coach Herb Sendek said.
“He’s taking advantage of the way teams are electing to guard us. Creighton did a lot of switching, and he did a great job of taking advantage of some of the matchups that were presented. He’s done a terrific job at the foul line. He is getting to the foul line, and he is converting free throws.”
Carson, 5-foot-10, has noticed a change in the skill level of opponents, of course. The game is faster. The opponents are bigger and stronger. At the same time, Carson has not found his size to be a deterrent. Think Kemba Walker. Carson still has been able to get to the basket, and he has been able to make his 3-pointers (10 for 23, 43.4 percent).
“The same way I had to adjust to the college game, a lot of guys have to adjust to a small, quick guy getting to the basket,” he said. “There are a not a lot of quick guys who are under six feet who come into the lane. I feel like they have to adjust to me the same way I have to adjust to them. Until they start figuring out that I can get to the basket and I can find an open teammate, I think it is going to be tough for guys to contain me.”
“It also helps have Carrick (Felix) in the corner and Evan (Gordon) in the corner and Jon (Gilling) setting picks and popping out. They can’t really double team me because Jon is going to be open or Carrick is going to be open. It definitely helps having a supporting cast that can score the basketball on my team as well.”
Small forward Felix is averaging more than 15 points a game, and Bachynski and power forward Gilling both are almost averaging a double-double in points and rebounds.
Carson understands it is a constant give-and-take, and that more adjustments may be forthcoming.
“As time progresses and teams start watching film on me, I’m going to have to have more of a mid-range jump shot. Teams are starting to back up off me, so I am going to have to start hitting the jump shot,” he said.
Among the areas in which Sendek would like to see improvement is in decreasing turnovers, which were a problem in the absence of a true point guard for most of last season. The Sun Devils are committing more than 15 a game, about the same as last season, although that number is mitigated by the fact that they are averaging about 10 more possessions a game while pushing the tempo. Carson believes familiarity will enable ASU to cut that figure, even as they continue to play with pace.
“That is us getting used to playing fast,” he said. “We want to play real fast, but we also have to learn we have stop signs. We can’t go past that stop sign. We have to bring the ball out and run the plays.”