Jahii Carson and Ben McLemore are two very different players.
Carson is a cocksure point guard, a playmaker that thrives when the ball is in his hands and has the confidence — both in himself and from head coach Herb Sendek — to take a tough shot or make a risky pass. No one questions his ability, certainly not Carson himself.
McLemore, on the other hand, is an off-guard that with one of the nation’s purest shooting strokes that, when combined with his off-the-charts athleticism and defensive ability, has scouts drooling over his potential. He could end up being the No. 1 pick in the draft, even if he still, at times, needs convincing that he’s the No. 1 option for Kansas.
Both are freshmen that entered college as consensus top 50 recruits. Both are putting up all-american caliber numbers. Neither was more than a member of the scout team last season, as they were both forced into redshirt years by the NCAA as a result of academic question marks coming out of high school.
And as it turns out, it may have been the best thing for both player’s careers.
McLemore’s story has been well-publicized, as he’s become the leading scorer for the team currently sitting at the top of the Coaches Poll. But few believe that McLemore could have had this kind of an impact if he had played his first year on campus. Throughout much of his career at the prep level, in both high school and AAU ball, McLemore was a complimentary player. He played AAU ball with Bradley Beal and Roosevelt Jones. His Oak Hill team included Quinn Cook, Jordan Adams, AJ Hammons and a handful of other high-major recruits.
McLemore never needed to be the star, which was perfect for him. He’s an introvert, a kid that’s still learning just how talented he truly is. He wasn’t ready for this stage last year; he needed the redshirt. “He’s going to have to get confidence,” Bill Self said of McLemore before the season, “There are a lot of things that he’s going to have to do, but he can run, he can jump and he can shoot. That’s a pretty good combination for a wing.”
And while McLemore is on everyone’s short list for potential first-team all-americans, he’s still nothing more than a piece in the Kansas system. Outside of the overtime win over Iowa State and the December victory at Ohio State, there aren’t many games where McLemore simply took over.
That’s not true for Carson, who has been the centerpiece for one of this season’s most improbable turnarounds.
Coming off of a 10-21 season, with a handful of important pieces transferring out during the offseason and two members of the coaching staff jumping ship weeks before the season was to begin, little was expected of the Sun Devils coming into the year. But Herb Sendek’s team has jumped out to a 16-4 record and a 5-2 mark in the Pac-12, good for a tie for second-place in the conference. That includes a win over Colorado and an 18 point shellacking of UCLA on Saturday.
The difference has been Carson.
“Last year, one our great challenges was that we didn’t have a true point guard in out program,” said Sendek, who sped up his team’s glacial pace from a year ago to fit with the skill-set of the uber-athletic Carson. “And that’s like trying to play without a quarterback in football. So having Jahii at that position this year has made an unquantifiable difference.”
Carson is averaging 17.3 points, 5.5 assists and 3.4 boards heading into Thursday night’s game at Washington State. He’s played at least 38 minutes in all but one of ASU’s Pac-12 games. But even Carson will admit that he wouldn’t have had this kind of an impact in his first season on campus.
“I would like to think so, but when it comes down to all reality I don’t htink I would have had this much of an impact,” Carson, a noted gym-rat, said in a phone interview on Wednesday. According to Carson, his days during his redshirt season were made up of workouts, class time, practice, workouts and, well, workouts. “I worked on my speed, my agility, my vertical, my quickness, so that’s what helped me a lot. I jump a lot higher. I was 155 out of high school, I’m 180 now. I’m able to get to the basket a lot easier than I would have coming out of high school.”
“I worked on my floater. In high school, I was able to get to the basket and dunk on pretty much every body in Arizona because most of the centers were 6-foot-5. I knew at the next level, I wouldn’t be able to attack the rim like that. I learned how to shoot the floater before I got to the big man and worked on my mid-range jumper.”
But the year-off allowed Carson to grow off-the-court as well. He said the most challenging part of being away from the game was maintaining a positive mindset and spirituality about his situation. Carson is a local kid. Arizona State is his hometown team. He’s got a lot of friends and family in the area, and having them watch the Sun Devils struggle through last season while he couldn’t contribute wasn’t easy. “I was in a difficult mental state not being able to play,” he said. “It humbled me and made me more aware of my situation. Mentally, it made me stronger and I’m definitely more mature.”
It also allowed him to learn the game at the college level. Carson spent last season on the practice squad, teaming up with Liberty transfer Evan Gordon to give Arizona State’s starting five all they could handle every day in practice. He learned how to run a team. He learned how to be a point guard at the college level.
Given Arizona State’s glaring hole at the point last season, it’s fair to wonder how good they good have been if Carson wasn’t forced to sit out. As tough as the last year was, Carson’s moved on. He knows he can’t changed the past, turning his redshirt year into a blessing in disguise.
The only thing he’s concerned about now: proving the doubters wrong.
“It definitely feels good to put pie in people’s faces after they doubted us so much,” he said. “A lot of people upped and left and didn’t give us a chance to see how our team would be and mature throughout the year. Some coaching staff gave up on us. A lot of being written off [in the media] as well.”
“It just feels good to go out here and play at a high level and be a high level team and just show everybody that we can compete with the best.”
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.