In 35 games last season, Jahii Carson finished second in the Pac-12 with 18.5 points per game. (Harry How/Getty Images)
The swagger Jahii Carson brings everytime he steps on the basketball court is not an act or an exaggeration. It is a natural byproduct of being the son of two parents who, according to Carson, share the very same personality trait, and it shines through in every part of his game. From his darting drives into the paint, to his ability to create shots for teammates, to the intricately coordinated game day fashion choices (Carson is very selective about the tights and shoes he wears for every game) and everything in between, Carson believes he’s one of the best, and best-dressed, point guards in the country.
“I’m not a trash talker,” Carson says. “My swagger does the trash talking for me.”
Swagger aside, Carson’s redshirt freshman season at Arizona State spoke volumes about the type of player he already is, and hinted at the bright future to come. In 35 games last season, Carson finished second in the Pac-12 at 18.5 points per game, third in assists at 5.1, ranked in the nation’s top 15 in percentage of minutes played at 91.4 (according to Kenpom.com) and nearly pushed a Sun Devils team that finished 10-21 one season prior to its first NCAA tournament berth in four seasons.
The brazen on-court demeanor dovetails with Carson’s flashy game, but it also affects other, less noticeable aspects of his team’s performance.
“The team feeds off it, the coaching staff feeds off it, the fans feed off it and the opposing team can sense it,” assistant coach Eric Musselman says. “He’s got a great disposition of thinking that when he steps on the floor, nobody’s better than him.”
Carson has always been a confident player, but his bravado has dropped a few notches since arriving in Tempe two years ago. The 5-foot-10 point guard was one of the country’s most highly-touted recruits coming out of Mesa (Az.) High School in 2011, where he grew into something of a local legend for his electric play. He tore up the AAU circuit with his Compton Magic team and drew interest from some of the nation’s best programs. Before finally committing to the Sun Devils, Carson held scholarship offers from Arizona, Marquette, Memphis, UCLA, Washington and other top schools.
By the time he arrived on campus, Carson’s ego had swelled to the point where he thought he was “untouchable.” Next came a humbling reality check: The NCAA ruled Carson an academic non-qualifier for his freshman season, meaning he would be unable to play or practice with his new team.
“It was shocking to me -- that the game I had played my whole life, when it was time for me to play college ball I had to sit out,” he says. “You come in with the NCAA, and they tell me I couldn’t play because of the ineligibility; it was tough. I couldn’t practice, I couldn’t get any coaching.”
The forced one-year absence was a huge disappointment, but the experience helped Carson mature, mentally and physically. After being ruled a partial qualifier for the second semester, Carson was able to practice, work with coaches and improve his strength and conditioning with extra weight room sessions after team workouts. The practices helped Carson acclimate himself to the physicality of the college game and begin to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of his teammates.
So when it came time to take the court last season, Carson already had a solid understanding of how to approach the college game. More important was the change in attitude, a humbling shift Carson credits for his first-team All-Pac 12 season.
“It allowed me to mature and learn not take everything for granted,” He says. “I matured, mentally and physically, got back on track academically and was better off at the end of the day.”
After spurning the NBA draft this offseason -- Carson submitted papers to the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee for evaluation, and most mock drafts pegged him as a fringe first-round pick in 2013 -- Carson is back for at least one more season of college hoops. He’s spent much of the offseason trying to improve his ability to both drive and finish with his left hand, as well as working on improving his jump shot.
Musselman has noticed Carson’s dedicated improvements, and believes the Sun Devils’ star guard is ready to take the next step. “Coming off the season he just had where he was first team All-Pac 12, he should be an All-American,” Musselman says. “When you look at point guards, you’re talking about one of the top two, three guys in the entire country at his position.”
Whether he’s able to reach that high standard is an open question. One thing is certain: Carson’s swagger isn’t going away. His intentions are plain.
“I think that I’m going to be one of the best players in the country, period.”