Matt Carlino’s and Nick Johnson’s decisions to open enroll at Highland as freshmen may have been the biggest boys basketball news of 2007.
The much-hyped pair stayed at the school for two years, helped the Hawks earn a No. 1 overall seed in the 5A Division I state tournament as freshmen, and reached the title game as sophomores before each transferred out of state.
In Jahii Carson’s first two seasons of high school basketball during that same time, his Mountain Pointe teams finished 14-38.
In a way, it paralleled the three players’ early basketball lives. In sixth and seventh grade, Carlino and Johnson played in a lot of Amateur Athletic Union club basketball games in California against the top talent in that state, while Carson mostly stayed local. The buzz of playing well against stiff competition helped Carlino get a scholarship offer from Arizona as a seventh grader. Johnson got one from Arizona State as an eighth grader.
All three played on a club team together when they were young, and Jahii’s mom, Vanae, saw that the biggest difference between her son and Carlino and Johnson wasn’t ability.
“Jahii just did not have that type of exposure,” Vanae Carson said.
Slowly but surely, Carson has caught up.
He made his rounds on the club ball circuit each summer, quickly earning a scholarship offer from Oregon State as a sophomore. Then after he de-committed from the Beavers last April, many of the nation’s top programs gave him a look before he settled on Arizona State.
Now the 5-foot-10 senior point guard for Mesa is regarded as the best college prospect in the state, and may be the most-hyped local recruit since Jerryd Bayless went from St. Mary’s to Arizona in 2007.
Carson said playing second fiddle to Johnson and Carlino helped drive him.
“I don’t want to feel like anybody’s ever better than me,” Carson said. “I try to be the best.”
Vanae Carson knew her son was special since before kindergarten. She and Jahii’s father, Jonathan, both played college basketball, so the bloodlines were there, and his talent on the court left little doubt.
“I knew from when he was four years old playing at the YMCA that he had gifts you cannot coach,” Vanae said. “They weren’t allowed to steal the ball when kids were dribbling, so he would read passing lanes. The offensive player didn’t know what to do.”
Carson led Mountain Pointe with averages of 18.3 points per game as a freshman and 27.3 as a sophomore, and the team improved from three wins his first year to 11 his second.
As a junior, Carson transferred to Mesa, drawing some outrage from the basketball community, but never from his coach.
“For someone of Jahii’s caliber and with all the attention he gets, we haven’t had any issues,” Jackrabbits coach Shane Burcar said. “He likes all (his teammates). If he wasn’t competitive and was a cool daddy, he wouldn’t survive.”
Carson’s stock really rose last winter break, when Mesa went to a tournament in California and he performed well against some of the best teams in the state.
He was invited to exclusive summer camps, where once again he held his own. Carson cracked the top-100 of recruiting site Rivals.com rankings, but he wanted more.
“When he was (ranked) No. 99 on Rivals, he said, ‘I know I’m better than these guys,’” Vanae said.
With impressive club ball performances, Carson has turned himself into a top national prospect. After being under the radar when Carlino and Johnson were the hot names in Arizona, he is now the most recognizable player in the state.
“Every night I come out, the fans know and the student sections know,” Carson said. “They always yap at me. It’s pressure for me to do well every night, and on top of that I want to do well for myself.”
Carlino originally committed to Indiana, moved from Gilbert to an Indiana prep school for a year, then graduated early and went to UCLA before transferring to BYU. Johnson transferred to Findlay Prep in Nevada after his sophomore year at Highland, but committed to Arizona in August, so the players will once again fare off on a regular basis in college.
“It’s crazy to me that after playing together at such a young age, that this was how it would turn out,” Carson said.
Carson’s looking forward to his college career, and has dreams of the NBA. But he still has a few more weeks left of his high school journey.
After years of competing against the nation’s best competition and proving himself, Burcar told Carson to relax.
“I told Jahii, ‘This is your last year of high school basketball, so enjoy it,’” Burcar said.
Carson is trying, but it doesn’t mean he’s taking it easy.
“People remember winners,” Carson said. “I haven’t won a state championship or even made a final four in my career. Hopefully this year we’ll get the state championship. It’s definitely one of my goals.”