There is a lot riding on Jahii Carson.
The 5-foot-11 guard is the highest-ranked recruit of Arizona State coach Herb Sendek's recent tenure -- the highest since James Harden, at least -- but was unable to play last season after being ruled a non-qualifier by the NCAA. While he participated in practices and waited his turn, the Sun Devils were going through the worst season of Sendek's tenure, a 10-21 campaign highlighted (or lowlighted) by a 6-12 Pac-12 mark and the dismissal of guard Keala King for attitude issues. It was a forgettable year in Tempe, and that's about the nicest way one can put it.
Which is why Carson is such an important player for the Sun Devils this season. Carson is also a Phoenix native, a local kid and a high school hoops legend. As such, the pressure to perform isn't just about wins and losses -- it's also about validating the decision to stay in the Phoenix area and lead the struggling hometown program out of its current doldrums. In a candid interview with the Arizona Republic's Doug Haller, Carson admitted to being worried about the hometown setting for his college career -- worries he shares with Memphis guard Joe Jackson:
"When I played with USA Basketball (last summer) I was roommates with Joe Jackson. And he played at Memphis and he's from Memphis. And he was saying that when he had down games and he wasn't at his best, the city kind of turned on him. Like, 'It's Joe's fault. He should know what to do.' If Will Barton didn't hit the jump shot, it was Joe Jackson's fault. That's kind of what I'm afraid of. People just putting everything on my back. Putting everything on me. Expecting me to be prepared for every moment next year. Losing games. Winning games. Having off nights. Not seeing a teammate if he's open. ... Joe and I talked about that because he knew I was going to my home-town school. He said he had talked with Coach (Josh) Pastner beforehand about what he was going to have to deal with, but he said it was still hard."
There will be other pressures involved in Carson's emergence -- his ability to play within Sendek's system, and Sendek's willingness to let the lightning-quick Carson freestyle on the fly -- but the one blockquoted may be the most important. Will ASU fans be patient? Will their expectations be too high? What are their expectations, anyway? How can Carson live up to it all?
There are differences from Jackson's situation, fortunately. Arizona State's basketball culture is entirely less insular and focused; when ASU is bad, fans don't freak out. They tune out. (This is not the case in Memphis.)
The good news? Carson is almost sure to improve the Sun Devils. How do I know? Because Carson is a noted ballhandler, and that's exactly what the Sun Devils need. In 2012, Arizona State had the fourth-highest turnover rate (25.7 percent) in the country. That's right: Arizona State coughed the ball up more frequently than all but three other Division I men's basketball teams (Texas Tech, Maryland Eastern Shore, and Towson, in case you're wondering). If Carson is even an average ballhandler -- and it's fair to assume he's at least a bit better than that -- the Sun Devils' chief flaw may no longer be a concern. At the very least, it will be minimized. And Arizona State will improve.
How much they improve will be a team effort. It will involve incoming transfers (including Hawaii transfer Bo Barnes and Liberty transfer Evan Gordon, the brother of NBA shooting guard Eric Gordon, Jr.) and returning players. But Carson had better be ready for the spotlight. In so far as one exists at ASU, he will most definitely be in it.