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.”

Report: Western Kentucky’s Lamonte Bearden staying in 2018 NBA Draft

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Western Kentucky guard Lamonte Bearden will stay in the 2018 NBA Draft after hiring an agent, according to a report from ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The 6-foot-3 Bearden just completed his redshirt junior season with the Hilltoppers as he averaged 11.8 points, 3.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game. A slippery guard with good size, Bearden shot 47 percent from the field and 82 percent from the charity stripe while also getting in the passing lanes for 1.7 steals per game.

Although Bearden has good size and athleticism at lead guard, his perimeter jumper has been inconsistent during his college career. He was 31 percent from three-point range (a career high) this past season. Starting his college career at Buffalo, Bearden helped lead the Bulls to the NCAA tournament before opting to play in Conference USA for Western Kentucky.

The Hilltoppers will certainly miss Bearden’s presence in their backcourt as the program has seven new players signed for next season.

USC makes a statement landing Class of 2019 four-star forward Isaiah Mobley

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USC ended a strong week of recruiting with another major statement on Friday afternoon as four-star Class of 2019 forward Isaiah Mobley pledged to the Trojans.

The second major Class of 2019 commitment for USC during the week, the 6-foot-9 power forward joins five-star big man Onyeka Okongwu. The Compton Magic teammates should be able to help replace the loss of Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, with Mobley playing the skilled, floor-spacing Boatwright’s role and Okongwu providing the interior energy of Metu.

Having two highly-touted big men commit in the same week is huge for USC. And it looks like the start of even bigger things in a continually-evolving SoCal recruiting war against Pac-12 rival UCLA.

Landing both Mobley and Okongwu is significant for the Trojans for a number of reasons. As previously mentioned, both come from the famous Compton Magic grassroots program that runs on the adidas Gauntlet. While landing AAU teammates from a regional program is common for high-major programs of USC’s stature, the commitments signify that the Trojans are the ones with the biggest pull with the Magic at the current moment.

And the Magic used to get raided by UCLA.

In the past few years, the Bruins signed T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Jaylen Hands and Jalen Hill from the Compton Magic. Now, it’s USC who looks to be in the driver’s seat recruiting the program.

The Trojans aren’t done, either.

Newly-hired USC assistant coach Eric Mobley is the father Isaiah Mobley, as well as five-star Class of 2020 big man Evan Mobley. As Rivals national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi noted in his story about Isaiah, “Barring something strange happening, look for the younger Mobley to join his brother and father by committing to USC within the next two weeks.”

That would mean the Trojans would have landed three top-30 caliber big men in the span of a few weeks. That allows the USC coaching staff to recruit other positions extremely hard. Outside of Kentucky, USC has arguably the best future recruiting status of any program in the country.

The Trojans have taken full advantage of UCLA letting go popular assistant coach David Grace. The Bruins are still pulling in top-100 prospects, as evidenced by Grant Sherfield and Jaime Jaquez’s commitments in the Class of 2019, but losing two Magic kids in a week to a rival has to sting.

Considering where USC was last fall with the FBI investigation, who saw this type of recruiting swing coming? Other programs involved in the investigation like Arizona, Auburn and Oklahoma State have landed solid recruits. They also haven’t pulled in nearly the high-level talent that the Trojans currently have committed.

Even amidst the uncertainty surrounding the FBI investigation, USC is still pulling in elite talent while beating local rivals. It’ll be fascinating to see if the Trojans can continue to recruit at this level as they try to fill out the rest of an important recruiting class.

USF signs Oklahoma State transfer Zack Dawson

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USF landed a major addition on Friday as the school announced the signing of Oklahoma State transfer guard Zack Dawson.

The 6-foot-3 Dawson is a former consensus top-100 prospect coming out of high school as he’ll have to sit out the 2018-19 season due to NCAA transfer rules. A native of the region, Dawson will have three years of eligibility remaining once he’s able to play again.

Dismissed from Oklahoma State on Dec. 14 for violating team rules, Dawson averaged 4.4 points and1.6 assists per contest as he only suited up in five games for the Cowboys. Once Dawson is eligible to play for USF, he gives the Bulls a potentially dynamic backcourt along with rising sophomore guard David Collins.

“We are excited to welcome Zack back home to Florida as a member of the Bulls family,” USF head coach Brian Gregory said in a release. “He is a dynamic and versatile guard who can impact the game in a variety of ways. Zack comes from one of the best high school programs in the state, South Miami High School, so he immediately brings a championship attitude here to the University of South Florida.”

This is a really nice pickup for the Bulls, as they utilized a local transfer to help bolster the roster. Landing top-100 kids out of high school is going to be tough until USF boosts its basketball credibility. But getting a former top-100 player on the transfer market is a solid approach to building the Bulls into a respectable threat.

Michael Porter Jr.: ‘I’m the best player in this draft’

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The more I think about it, the more that Michael Porter Jr. is becoming the most interesting prospect at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft.

As a high school senior, he was considered by many to be the top player in the class, a 6-foot-10 combo-forward with a lethal three-point shot, NBA dunk contest athleticism and the versatility to, one day, be a multi-positional defender that would seamlessly fit into fit into the modern NBA.

But his one and only season at Missouri was derailed by back surgery, and that has allowed the rest of the class of 2017 to shine while we have focused on everything else that comes with drafting Porter. The reputation that he had for the majority of his high school career of being soft. The intel that was coming out of Missouri, that he was cocky and arrogant and something of a bad teammate. Questions about whether or not he is truly a wing or a four, more like a more athletic Lauri Markkanen.

When the only thing that we’ve had a chance to see this season is an out-of-shape Porter struggling in postseason games, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that his hype train has derailed.

“I know without a doubt that I’m the — I played against all these guys, they’re all great players — but I’m the best player in this draft,” Porter told ESPN. “And I just can’t wait to show what I’m capable of.”

And therein lies the conundrum for any team drafting him.

I have little doubt that Porter is going to be able to score and score a lot in the NBA. I think he and Bagley are the safest bets to average 20 points at the NBA level before their rookie contract runs out.

But putting up points and playing on winning basketball teams are not one and the same. For a ten-year stretch after his rookie season, Rudy Gay averaged at least 17.2 points while making the playoffs once during that stretch. Is that what Porter is going to turn into at the next level? Or will be find a way to become the kind of NBA defender his athleticism says he should be and, by the time he signs his first contract extension, end up the player that Paul George is?

The mitigating factor here is that Porter is going to do a fantastic job in every interview he has. He’s an intelligent, charismatic and articulate kid that is going to be able to sell himself. The red flags that he has aren’t going to show when he’s sitting down in front of NBA general managers.

They would have shown up — or been written off — if there was a season’s worth of game-tape available, but there isn’t. What that means is that scouts are going to have to decide whether or not Porter, who by all accounts had a very impressive senior season in high school, is that player or the one that had the reputation for being soft for years before that.

And all of that is going to come after the doctor’s have a chance to examine his back to see if the surgery he underwent fixed what was wrong, or if this is the kind of situation where a recurrence is likely.

The result is the widest range for any player at the top of the draft.

He could sell someone on taking him as a top four pick. He could also slide his way down to the Knicks at No. 9 or the 76ers at No. 10.

Which is what makes him the most interesting prospect at the top of this draft.

P.J. Washington ‘definitely going back to school’ without first round guarantee

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Kentucky forward P.J. Washington is one of the handful of players that currently finds themselves in the tenuous position of having their name in the NBA draft pool without having a clear picture of where, exactly, they are going to end up getting picked.

Will they be a late-first round pick? Will he be an early second round pick? Will he even be drafted at all?

Washington told reporters at the NBA combine this week that, if he’s a first round pick, he’ll be heading to the NBA. If he only gets a second round guarantee, he’ll be returning to school.

As we detailed last week, getting selected in the second round does not mean a player is destined to end up being broke his first year out of school. In the last six drafts, only one college player picked in the top ten picks of the second round (31-40) did not receive a guaranteed contract. In the 2017 NBA Draft, every college player selected in the top 50 received a guaranteed deal of at least one year, and Thomas Bryant was the only player whose one-year guaranteed deal was at the league minimum.

That doesn’t mean that Washington should leave Kentucky if he’s going to be a second round pick. If he returns to school, becomes a 42 percent three-point shooter (and can make free throws) and proves that he’s more versatile defensively than he was his year, then he could move up into the first round in a weaker 2019 draft.

It’s a risk for him, financially, to leave after this year if he doesn’t get that first round guarantee. It’s also a risk to return to school, where the best-case scenario isn’t always what happens.

I don’t envy the decision he has to make, but I am glad that Washington will have every chance in the world to be informed about the decision.