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As far back as he can remember, Jahii Carson liked to have the ball in his hands, not merely to play the game of basketball but to direct it.
Theoretically a good point guard can be manufactured, but the great ones usually are born into the job, their DNA hardwired for the demands of the position in the womb.
That was always Carson. Even as a kid, he thrived on decision-making demands of the job, confident that his choices would be best for him as well as his teammates. (Though his point guard DNA must be the byproduct of a recessive gene. His mother, Vanae, was a 2-guard at Wisconsin-Green Bay who, her son said, "liked to shoot. A lot.'').
So it's more than just a little ironic that the most critical year in Carson's development came when he didn't have the ball in his hand.
|Jahii Carson will guide Arizona State this year. How far the Sun Devils go will depend on how far he takes them.|
Carson failed to get the needed ACT score to be eligible as a freshman, so for an entire year he sat on the Arizona State bench and watched.
That which doesn't kill you? Yes, no doubt Carson is definitely stronger for the experience, as are the Sun Devils.
"That year out, it taught me even more respect for the game,'' he said. "I learned a lot just watching and it made me mature, on and off the court. But I still carry a chip on my shoulder. I have it every day I play because of that experience.''
But Carson is carrying more than a chip this season; he's toting the burden of expectation. It's been five years since Arizona State cracked the NCAA tournament code, an eternity that has toasted up the chair on which Herb Sendek sits.
Yet once Carson announced in April he'd be back for his sophomore season, the prevailing presumption for the Sun Devils was an NCAA tourney bid at the end of the rainbow.
That's an entirely accurate assessment because as Carson goes, so go the Sun Devils.
Arizona State, after all, changed its entire playing style simply to suit him.
Herb Sendek will never be confused with a wild and crazy guy. Whip-smart, he is more button-down than loosey-goosey, and his teams played like it. Three years ago, the Sun Devils averaged 61 points per game. Then along came a roardrunner of a point guard, and all of a sudden Sendek was loosening his virtual tie. Last season Arizona State averaged 72 points per game. So far this year, the Sun Devils are speeding along at 84.8, holding fast to Sendek's 3-12-24 motto: get the ball over halfcourt in 3 seconds, try to get a shot off within 12 and practice with a 24-second shot clock.
"We really believe [Jahii] is the fastest point guard in college basketball,'' Sendek said. "So our style of play reflects that. And so as fast as we played last year, we want to push on the accelerator even more this year.''
All that adds up to a perpetual green light for Carson, who, despite his responsibilities for directing the game, has no trouble also dominating it as well.
In the year of the freshman, Carson joins Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart as an outlying sophomore head-turner. Against UNLV, Carson dropped a career-high 40, but a closer examination of the box score shows he's not some gunner out for himself. He was smart with his shot selection, connecting on 16 of 25 from the floor and 6 of 9 from beyond the arc. But more critically, he added seven assists to all of those points.
"To have a coach that lets you play and not put handcuffs on you is every player's dream,'' Carson said. "He asks me to play freely. A lot of guys, they're always looking over their shoulders. I never have to do that. He trusts me.''
Now for the big question: Can Arizona State trust Carson to take them to the NCAA tournament? Fair or not, that's ultimately how all teams are measured, how Carson's legacy will be judged.
He's not alone. Across the county, there are a good number of point guards who are feeling the pressure of expectation and the burden of responsibility this year.
Here are 11 more (a friendly reminder: This is not a list of the best point guards in the country. So please don't ask where Aaron Craft is):
Keith Appling, Michigan State
Keith Appling can be Keith Appling's own worst enemy. He's battled inconsistency his entire career. When he's good, he's terrific. But then there's the near-debacle against Columbia, in which Appling was a virtual no-show. Michigan State needs one thing and one thing only from its point guard -- consistency.
Brett Comer, Florida Gulf Coast
The dunks stole the show, but really it was the audacity of the setup man that got Dunk City going. Can Comer keep the Eagles relevant with a new coach?
Yogi Ferrell, Indiana
Ferrell had the luxury of mixing in with the wallpaper a year ago, while Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller did the starring. No more. With a roster stuffed with freshmen, the job of keeping Indiana on task falls directly in Ferrell's lap.
Andrew Harrison, Kentucky
Julius Randle has everyone agog, but it's the play of Harrison that will really determine how far the Wildcats go this year. Through seven games he's been OK at best.
Joe Jackson, Memphis
The Tigers are loaded with guards, but it's the Memphis native who stirs the pot. It's up to Jackson to push the tempo, but to also control the offense, which so far has been Memphis' Achilles' heel. As in: The Tigers need to get an offensive identity.
Chris Jones, Louisville
There are plenty of pieces returning to the defending national champions, but one gaping hole, too. And that's where Peyton Siva once stood. It's up to Jones, an uber-talented junior college transfer, to fill it.
T.J. McConnell, Arizona
The Wildcats are loaded, but young. The job of directing all of that youth into something successful falls to McConnell, a blue-collar transfer from Duquesne. He's tough and good, but this is a bit of a step up from the Dukes and the Atlantic 10.
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut
The Huskies are at an interesting crossroads -- no Big East to hang their hat on, no Jim Calhoun to garner attention. UConn has to stay good to stay relevant. And to stay good, the Huskies need Napier to be terrific.
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
Point guard, 2-guard, combo; call Smart whatever you want, but the fact of the matter is no one's game will be more scrutinized this year. His decision to return for his sophomore season turned the spotlight directly on him and the Cowboys. So far, so superstar.
Derrick Walton Jr., Michigan
Someone has to replace the national player of the year. That someone is Walton. It would be unfair to expect the freshman to be everything Trey Burke was. Trey Burke wasn't Trey Burke his first season. But for a Wolverines team that has high expectations despite losing Burke and Tim Hardaway, he has to be solid.
Chaz Williams, UMass
The little man is the biggest man on campus for the Minutemen, a dazzling playmaker who could push his way into the national conversation if he can elevate UMass onto the big stage. But it's NCAA tourney or bust for UMass and Williams.