Arizona State point guard Jahii Carson looks to go out in style

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

Prior to the start of the 2012-13 season Arizona State head coach Herb Sendek said on multiple occasions that his team would play faster. And many snickered, pointing out that the team’s adjusted tempo of 63.6 in 2011-12 was the highest (ranked 281st nationally) of any Sendek-coached team during his time in Tempe. And from a scoring standpoint, since the 2008-09 squad led by James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph (now Jeff Ayres) averaged 69.4 points per game no Arizona State squad in the three seasons that followed averaged more than 67 points per contest.

But while the cynics scoffed Arizona State knew they had a point guard in redshirt freshman Jahii Carson capable of changing the tempo at which the Sun Devils ran, and sure enough the Mesa native’s impact was felt immediately. With Carson leading the way Arizona State increased its scoring average by more than ten points per game (71.8 ppg after averaging 61.0 ppg in 2011-12) and more importantly the Sun Devils increased their win total by 12, going from ten wins to 22 and a trip to the Postseason NIT.

In regards to Carson’s (18.5 ppg, 5.1 apg) individual achievements, he became the first freshman to average at least 18 points and five assists per game since Mount St. Mary’s guard Chris McGuthrie (19.8, 5.1) did so back in 1992-93. With the combination of his individual skills and the way in which he helped transform the Arizona State program, Carson very well could have made the decision to enter the 2013 NBA Draft.

But he didn’t, deciding instead to return to Tempe with the goal of leading Arizona State to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009.

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“The most important information that we used to make the decision was Jahii’s own feelings about what he needed to do,” Sendek told NBC Sports. “Jahii has a very high basketball IQ, and he determined that this was really something that made sense for him.”

Carson wasn’t the first player to ultimately decide that returning to school was the best decision for him, and he certainly won’t be the last. But the concern in such situations is that instead of focusing on what the team needs, a player who returns to school does so with his focus being what the NBA scouts and executives want to see. And a failure to focus on the task at hand can result in a negative outcome for both the player and the program. However Sendek made it clear in early October that this would be the point guard’s final season in Tempe, and that move has removed most of the pressure Carson could have felt regarding the process.

“Many people, when they have the opportunity to go to the NBA, they try to play into what the NBA expects of them,” Carson told NBC Sports. “A lot of guys come back and say, ‘the NBA wants me to shoot better’ or ‘they want to see my ball-handling skills’ and they don’t necessarily play to win; they play to what the NBA scouts want to see.

“I’m the type of player who wants to win, because the more you win the better you’ll look to anybody,” Carson continued. “Everybody remembers a winner, so with my coach getting it out there and letting people know this will be my last season at Arizona State that takes the pressure off of me and allows me focus on making my teammates better and winning basketball games.”

If there’s one area that Carson needed to improve in during the offseason it was his perimeter shooting, as he made just 32% of his shots from beyond the arc in 2012-13. While the new rules limiting contact on the perimeter may benefit a jet-quick guard like Carson, there’s also the possibility of teams sagging off and essentially daring him to prove that he can consistently knock down perimeter shots. But to this point in the preseason, Carson’s perimeter shot has improved according to Sendek.

And while that’s certainly a skill Carson needed to improve upon with an eye towards the long-term goal (getting to the NBA and being productive there), more importantly it will help Arizona State in the short-term.

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“I think the two will go hand-in-hand,” noted Sendek. “The more he helps Arizona State, the better that will prepare him for the NBA and enhance his chances in that league.”

Arizona State lost two double-digit scorers from last season in Evan Gordon (10.1 ppg) and Carrick Felix (14.1, 8.6 rpg), with the latter also being a valuable team leader both on the court and in the locker room. But center Jordan Bachynski returns for his senior season after posting averages of 9.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and a Pac-12 best 3.4 blocked shots per game, and the experienced Jonathan Gilling (9.7, 6.1) returns as well. Add in seven newcomers and Arizona State expects to have the depth needed to play at an ever faster pace.

One of those newcomers is senior guard Jermaine Marshall, who averaged 16.3 points per game at Penn State last season. Marshall’s arrival should help relieve some of the nightly attention that Carson receives from opponents, but the sophomore point guard will still be asked to score. If anything, Marshall’s arrival is expected to help make Carson a more efficient player.

“I don’t think it’s going to decrease my scoring,” said Carson of Marshall’s possible impact. “I do think that it will increase my productivity. With me being a more mature player, I’m going to be able to hit three-pointers, make my free throws and be more efficient from the field than I was last year. ”

The graduation of Felix makes leadership all the more important, and that’s an area in which veterans such as Carson, Bachynski and Gilling will be asked to grab the reins. And with the Pac-12 being an improved conference with eight teams feeling that they’ve got the talent needed to reach the NCAA tournament, Arizona State’s climb won’t be an easy one. But having an elite point guard will definitely help matters, and for all the individual praise heaped upon Carson the goal for his final season in Tempe is to accomplish what he didn’t a year ago: play in the NCAA tournament.

“I wanted to get to the NCAA tournament and only a few people get to experience that in their lives, and I want to be one of those people,” said Carson. “I felt like I had unfinished business here, and I want to leave a legacy here at Arizona State. And by making the NCAA tournament, I feel that it would secure a legacy for me at Arizona State.”

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.