Carson anxious to finally play for Sun Devils

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) -- Jahii Carson leaves a defender stumbling and staggering with a crossover. Then another. And another.

Seconds later, he whips a bounce pass through traffic to hit a teammate in perfect stride, does it again from a different angle to a different teammate. He drops in 3-pointers, mid-range jumpers, reverse layups.

And the dunks: a head-above-the-rim, double-pump reverse, an almost indescribable around-his-back tomahawk after catching a bouncing lob pass off the floor.

Nearly half a million hoops fans have watched the highlight reel of the 5-foot-10 point guard with the bouncy legs and blurring quickness on YouTube.

His Arizona State teammates have seen similar eye-bugging displays on the practice court.

Now, after a year on the shelf, the Jahii Carson show is going live. If it's even half as good as the hype, it'll be a sure hit.

"I'm ready," Carson said on Tuesday. "I wish the game was tomorrow."

Arizona State fans wished it was last year.

One of the most highly touted basketball recruits in school history - certainly under coach Herb Sendek - Carson was viewed as a program savior, a point guard with ridiculous skills and a swagger to match who would lift Arizona State out of mediocrity.

His resurrection project got put on hold for a year, though, when he didn't meet the NCAA's academic eligibility standards.

All that did was add to the hype.

With Arizona State struggling and Carson's highlight reel racking up the hits, the hyperbole reached a manic pitch, Sun Devils fans wondering WWJD - What Would Jahii Do? - as the season wore on and the losses piled up.

Carson's Twitter followers ballooned over 6,000 and his reputation swelled to superhero proportions even though few people outside Arizona State had seen him play since he averaged 32.2 points and 6.6 assists during his senior season at nearby Mesa High School.

The long wait over, Sun Devils fans, coaches and players are anxious to see what he can do when the lights come back on.

"He's got a lot of confidence, he can score in many different ways, so it'll be exciting to watch him play," said Evan Gordon, who will team with Carson in what's expected to be one of the country's best backcourts after sitting out as a transfer from Liberty last season. "Watching him in practice and guarding him in practice, he's an amazing player."

Carson is certainly a singular talent, blessed with a crossover that often leaves defenders falling over, a deft outside shooting touch and pogo-stick legs that allow him to not just get to the rim, but finish over bigger players.

He also has plenty of a confidence, a swagger in his voice and body language that lets everyone know he can handle anything that comes his way.

Still, asking a player who's barely out of his teens to carry the hopes of an entire program and fervor-fueled fans is asking a lot, even for someone with a skill set like Carson's.

"The danger is because of the legendary reputation, the fervent interest, there's some of us perhaps 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," Sendek said. "That doesn't mean we don't want to have high expectations for him and all the players on our team, but there comes a point where we have to stay on earth, too."

But part of what has stoked anticipation for Carson's debut is the belief that he's the kind of player and person who can handle it.

On the court, he was often one of the best players during Arizona State's practice last season, wowing teammates with his quickness.

He used his redshirt season wisely, working on his game, adding about 15 pounds of muscle to his lanky frame, studying opposing players and NBA point guards like Tony Parker, Steve Nash and Ty Lawson.

Carson also matured during his year away from the spotlight, vowing not to take anything for granted after his "dumb mistake" of slipping up academically.

There's a self-awareness, too, a realization that if he gets caught up in the hype and pressure, it will take him down.

"I just try not to think about it," Carson said. "I know it's something that's there, but the more I think about it, the more it's going to affect me. So the more I don't think about it and just keep focus, the better I'll play and the more I'll keep that out of the way."

The bow on Carson's got-it-all package is the confidence that holds it all together.

His is not the hollow bravado of a doesn't-know-any-better youngster. He truly does believe in himself, a trait that initially caught his teammates off-guard the first few practices last year.

The swagger is in the way he strokes in jumpers and takes the ball to the rim without hesitation.

It's in the way he talks, the calmness and inflection of someone much older, not a year removed from high school.

It's in his desire to be in the spotlight, to rise up to the brightness of so many eyes watching, not shrink away from them.

"He's a pretty cool, calm customer," Sendek said. "That's the one thing about sports to me is how some of these guys are able to perform at such amazing levels in the crucibles we put them in. Whether it's Mary Lou Retton needing a 10 and getting it in the Olympics or a quarterback needing to take a team 80 yards in the final two minutes in front of 80,000 people and millions more on TV, the ability to just block everything out and perform at a high level is something that I have tremendous respect for.

"I think Jahii, along those same lines, will have that ability."

Arizona State and its fans sure hope so. They've been waiting over a year for this show to start.

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