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College Basketball

Jahii Carson efficiently guiding Sun Devils back to NCAA tournament

Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

Jahii Carson has become so popular at Arizona State that fans have a holy nickname for him: "Jahiisus."

Given this week's thin slate of games and the disruptive influence of higher education, the list remains mostly unchanged, except that Jabari Parker is now on top and there's been some shuffling at the bottom. But once finals are behind us and certain teams start playing stiffer competition (note: UCLA faces Duke in Madison Square Garden on Thursday) this list could see some significant movement. Or not. Read on.

Spotlight on: Jahii Carson, Arizona State

Of all the many e-words used to describe Arizona State point guard Jahii Carson's game -- explosive, exciting, electric -- nothing makes him puff up quite like the adjective efficient. "I know efficiency is what matters," says Carson, a 5-foot-10, 180-pound redshirt sophomore. "I try not to take bad shots. And I find the more I get my teammates involved and the more I let the game come to me, the easier the shots come."

Letting the game play him, as some coaches like to say, has reaped huge benefits for Carson this season. Through 11 games he is hitting 50 percent from beyond the three-point line (compared to 32 percent last year) and, perhaps more impressive, he is hitting 52 percent inside it, an insanely high rate for a guy who has just three career dunks and 26 career offensive rebounds. Currently Carson is the only player in the nation who is averaging 19.9 points while shooting 50 percent and dishing out five assists a game.

It doesn't hurt that Carson, who has the speed, quickness and strength of a free safety, is almost impossible to guard, especially now that the rules ban hand-checking and arm bars. "He's a little fire hydrant that can go 70 mph," says ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, who coached Carson at the Adidas Nations camp this summer. "There are very few players in college basketball that can stay in front of someone that fast and strong. Maybe Aaron Craft can do it."

Carson, who honed his game at a Salvation Army gym while growing up near Phoenix, doesn't rely on his natural physical gifts alone to make the shots he takes count. This offseason he watched film, polished his jump shooting, and followed the examples of Venus and Serena Williams -- athletes his tennis-fan mom, Karen, whose maiden name is Williams, jokes are long-lost cousins -- to increase the coordination and strength in his left hand. He brushed his teeth, opened doors, carried his books and, of course, shot and passed with his left hand. "I really tried to work on the details of things this summer," says Carson. "When to score, time and score, when do I take a jump shot, when should I look for the open man, when should I be aggressive? Should I use my left earlier?"

With the Sun Devils at 9-2, it's fair to say Carson's decision-making has been, at the very least, effective.

1. Jabari Parker, Duke

For all his offensive brilliance, Parker has had a few struggles on defense and, lately, from the three-point line. But after going 0-for-7 from the arc in his previous three games, he finally hit one (of two) in a win over Gardner Webb on Monday night on his way to a 21-point, six-rebound performance. Parker's consistency has been remarkable. Think about it: In his worst scoring game to date, a win over Michigan on Dec. 3, he scored 15 points, shot 50 percent and grabbed five rebounds. Parker through 10 games is averaging 22 points and 7.6 rebounds while shooting 55 percent from the field and 47 percent from three.

2. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State

In the Cowboys only game, a 70-55 win over Louisiana Tech, Smart had a nice box-score stuffing game: 13 points, five rebounds, five assists, four steals and two blocks. Smart didn't force his own offense, and he got his teammates involved. Still, he seems less indomitable than he did in the second half of November, and his unreliable three-point shooting (32 percent) is a concern. Smart through 10: 19 points; 4.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists.

3. Doug McDermott, Creighton

The Bluejays have been on an eight-day break since their win over Nebraska, so their star's numbers remain as sparkling as they were last week: Having scored 30 or more four times in nine games, McDermott is averaging 25.3 points and 6.9 rebounds on 50 percentx shooting.

4. Julius Randle, Kentucky

In the Wildcats' first true road test -- and only game this week -- Randle struggled mightily against North Carolina, turning in a sluggish defensive effort and producing just three buckets and five (of six) free throws for 11 points and five rebounds in an 82-77 loss. The first truly ugly game for Kentucky's most reliable player came at a really bad time, but it doesn't put that much of a dent in his resume. Randle through 11: 17.2 points, 11.4 rebounds, 52 percent shooting.

5. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut

Connecticut was off this week, which gives us an opportunity to propose an alternative to the "Shabazz is the second coming of Kemba" trope that's fashionable right now. When UConn coach Kevin Ollie watches Napier, he doesn't think of Walker, he thinks of a former NBA opponent, Nick Van Exel, who Ollie found to be a nightmare to defend. "Like Bazz, Van Exel could shoot it, and get to the rim, and he had this herky jerky way of creating space and keeping his opponents off balance," says Ollie. Van Exel, coincidentally, was also known for his clutch shooting. Napier through nine games: 15.3 points; 7 rebounds; 5.9 assists; 2.1 steals, 57 percent from the three.

6. Jahii Carson, Arizona State

Surrounded now by other reliable scorers, such as senior center Jordan Bachynski (14.9 ppg) and transfer Jermaine Marshall (12.9 ppg) Carson says he now sees the floor better than he did when he felt he had to score a lot to keep the team afloat (i.e. last year and all through high school) The result? A well-balanced stat line such as the one he produced in this week's 97-55 win over Grambling: 14 points, six assists, five rebounds and one block. Carson through 11: 19.9 points (on 52 percent shooting); 5.2 assists; 3.8 rebounds.

7. Russ Smith, Louisville

After Smith's 14-point, 10-assist, four-rebound effort in the Cardinals 79-63 win over Western Kentucky -- his second double-double in three games -- coach Rick Pitino called him "the premier player in college basketball," and lauded him for the changes he has made to his game. "Two years ago, I needed him to carry the team on his back, he did. Now I need him to pass the basketball and take good shots, he does." Smith's smart, well-rounded play through 10 games has produced ferocious defense and 17.2 points, 3.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.8 steals in 26.4 minutes a game.

8. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas

This week we once again saw two sides of the mercurial Wiggins: In a 67-61 loss at No. 19 Florida he was sensational, scoring 26 points (including four threes) and grabbing 11 rebounds while neutralizing Gator star Casey Prather. In an 80-63 win over New Mexico four days later, he shot poorly (3-11), got saddled with foul trouble and ended with four rebounds and 11 points, five of them from the stripe. But he is still a marvel to behold in transition. Wiggins, now the Jayhawks' leading scorer, through 10: 15.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 48 percent shooting from the field.

9. Keith Appling, Michigan State

Appling helped rescue the Spartans from a potentially embarrassing loss by scoring 18 of his 21 points in the second half of a 67-63 win over Oakland on Dec. 14. The Spartans may need a lot more of his heroics if Gary Harris's sore ankle and Adriean Payne's plantar fasciitis don't heal soon. Appling through nine games: 16.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 55 percent FG, including 51 percent from three.

10. Marcus Paige, North Carolina

The Heels' only reliable perimeter and free throw shooter, Paige reasserted his indispensability in North Carolina's 82-77 win over Kentucky on Dec. 14. The reformed old point guard looked for his own shot and provided a steadying hand, particularly in the second half, when he scored 21 of his 23 points. Paige through nine games: 19.2 points, 4.2 assists, and shooting almost 90 percent from the stripe.

In the wings: Chaz Williams, UMass; Nick Johnson, Arizona; Casey Prather, Florida; Jordan Adams, UCLA; Kyle Anderson, UCLA; C.J. Fair, Syracuse; Aaron Craft, Ohio State; Roberto Nelson, Oregon State

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