TEMPE – Jahii Carson is not the only newcomer Arizona State will count on to raise its standing and its profile this basketball season. Two transfers with nice resumes also are expected to be among the Sun Devils’ top six.
But Carson is the player whom ASU revamped its offense around before the 2011-12 season and, once he was ruled ineligible, the player ASU most lamented losing. Coach Herb Sendek again this year has installed a free-wheeling offense with Carson as the conductor/point guard, and Sendek said at media day Tuesday that he would be “hard-pressed to believe anybody will push the ball any faster than Arizona State.”
A year in absentia only seems to have increased the expectations … and the pressure … on Carson.
It is natural. Carson has been in the spotlight since he was a top-40 national recruit out of Mesa High two years ago, a player with the game and the swagger to make a seamless transition. A composite highlight reel featuring soaring slams – he is 5-foot-10 – had 477,000 YouTube viewings as of Tuesday mid-afternoon, and he played with the U.S. gold medal U-19 national team two summers ago.
Carson understands the pressure that comes from being under the microscope, and he is doing his best to wall it off.
“I just try not to think about it,” he said. “I know it is something that is there, but the more I think about it, the more it is going to affect me. The more I don’t think about it and just keep focus, the better I will play and the more I will keep it out of the way.
“Of course it pops up and people talk to me about it. I listen, and I have my opinions about it. Since I wasn’t able to play last year, I think it is best for me to focus on the task at hand. I just try to think about taking the Sun Devils to another level. I just think about the season, having a better season and making my teammates better every day.”
Carson will be the primary ball-handler on a team that will run every chance it gets and play man-to-man defense this season, players said Tuesday. Sendek, who has long favored an intricate matchup zone defense, said ASU will unveil its defensive strategy in the opener Nov. 10 against Central Arkansas.
Transfer guard Evan Gordon, forwards Carrick Felix and Jonathan Gilling and post man Jordan Bachynski are the other likely starters, with transfer wing Bo Barnes as the sixth man. Seniors center Ruslan Pateev and guard Chris Colvin also are expected to contribute. Gordon led Liberty University in scoring in 2010-11 and is the brother of NBA player Eric Gordon.
Sendek cautions against the hype surrounding Carson, even as he seems to add to it.
“He’s an extremely talented young man. But my central message to Jahii is, ‘I have your back. I’m standing with you. Just be yourself,’ ” Sendek said.
“I think the danger is, because of the legendary reputation (and) the fervent interest, that there are some of us perhaps are expecting him to take the court with an ‘S’ on his shirt and a cape on his back. And that really wouldn’t be fair to him.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t want to have high expectations for him and for all of our players and our team. But there comes a point where we have to stay on earth, too. We are just now embarking on that journey. That is a message we will continue to talk about so that he can navigate that well. I have no doubt that he will, because he is a pretty cool, calm customer. The ability to block everything out and perform at a high level is something I have great respect for, and I think Jahii will have that ability.”
Carson was so much better than his competition that he had things pretty much his own way in his final two years at Mesa High. He set school season scoring and assist records in each season, averaging 32.2 points and 6.6 assists for the state semifinalist Jackrabbits in 2010-11. He scored 37, 38 and 58 points in three state tournament games that year.
Carson, who spent last season practicing with the Sun Devils after falling just short of academic requirements necessary to play, knows things will be different here.
“High school I just had one speed – that was just go fast,” he said. “For me to get defenders off-balance, changing my gear, changing my speed is going to be something that can help me get to the basket a little bit easier. Having a mid-range jump shot, I think that will keep the defense balanced. And having a nice little 3-ball, I think that is going to keep the defense honest.
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“A lot of guys now days like to shoot 3s or take it all the way to the basket, but if guards have a great mid-range jump shot, it keeps the defense honest. A small guy, an undersized point guard, having a mid-range jumper is something I need to perfect.”
Carson brings an attitude Sendek wants the team to embody after a 10-21 (10th place, Pac-12) season, and he did not mind the Superman reference one bit.
“I definitely have a certain confidence and swagger about myself,” he said. “I don’t want to seem arrogant or cocky, but I definitely have a confidence about my game.
“I have a confidence about my teammates’ game, and I think together we can be something super.”
Felix and Carson played together for three seasons on AAU teams in the area.
“I think he is mentally ready,” Felix said. “A lot of things he has been through in his life and in the past year has put him in the place where he knows what he has to do. He knows he has to be that point guard that we need, that floor general that handles the ball and gets people where they need to be. And obviously score, because he is a good scorer. He’s ready on all levels.”