For a university with the second-largest enrollment in the country, last Friday morning at Arizona State was surprisingly serene.
The daily bustle was reduced to a leisurely stroll for the rare student who scheduled — and actually attended — an early class on campus.
On Palm Walk, the school’s most trafficked pathway, three men and a woman sat inside an informational tent for a 24-hour prayer house. Their job was to recruit fellow students, but the malaise hit them, too, as they carried on a private conversation, oblivious to the dozens of targets who walked by.
It was a laid-back vibe; easy for ASU point guard Jahii Carson to blend in.
He left math class near Hayden Library at 9:45 a.m. and made the trek north for study hall wearing basketball shorts and a plain, long-sleeved black shirt. The left earbud stayed in, spitting lyrics by Future, a Haitian-American hip-hop artist from Atlanta. The right one dangled by his neck.
While Carson walked inconspicuously, this type of tranquility is fleeting. On similar excursions, Carson has been asked for autographs or basketball tickets.
He was once stopped by a fellow student who was struck by his resemblance to ... Jahii Carson.
“Yeah, man, that’s me,” Carson told him.
His online presence is even more renowned. Carson has 6,233 followers on Twitter, 5,266 friends on Facebook and more than a million combined views on his two most popular YouTube highlight videos.
Friday might have been his last moments of calm before the storm.
While he is the smallest player on the basketball team at 5-foot-10, he may already be the biggest man on campus.
On Saturday, the long-awaited college basketball career for Arizona State’s next “future” begins.
Carson committed to the Sun Devils out of Mesa High in 2011, where he wrapped up an outstanding high school career by averaging 32.2 points per game as a senior, leading the Jackrabbits to the 5A Division I state semifinals.
The Tribune Player of the Year was named the seventh -best point guard and 33rd best overall player in the country by Rivals.com when he left high school, but was ruled academically ineligible by the NCAA and did not play last year as a true freshman.
The fans, though, did not forget about him. In fact, following a year in which three of the team’s four leading scorers transferred, rather the opposite is true.
“Not playing last year kind of made the pot continue to boil,” Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said.
At 5:30 p.m. against Central Arkansas, Carson should become only the fourth freshman from Arizona to ever start the season opener for the Sun Devils.
Corona del Sol’s Donnell Knight did so in 1999, followed by Glendale Deer Valley’s Christian Polk in 2006 and Desert Vista’s Ty Abbott in 2007.
But none of them can remotely approach Carson in terms of hype.
There will be 10 players on the court Saturday, but the other nine will be sideshows.
“I don’t ever try to encourage guys where to go, but (in high school) Jahii was saying he was interested in ASU,” said Shane Burcar, Carson’s high school coach at Mesa. “I told him, ‘The one thing about you, Jahii, if it works for you, you’ll be remembered. You’re a hometown guy. You’ll be one of the few guys who don’t go down to Tucson. You can be different if that’s what you want to do.’”
The basketball team is fighting for viability in a crowded sports market, and ASU media relations director Doug Tammaro knows Carson — the local star with talent and charisma — is already the team’s biggest asset.
He is featured prominently on a team poster alongside junior Jordan Bachynski and his image is splattered across various marketing platforms. The Sun Devils are banking on him to sell tickets.
Tammaro said there may have been limitations on Carson’s visibility if he was a true freshman, but after getting to know him, any restrictions have been lifted.
“It’s not like Jahii’s going to go to the free throw line and think, ‘I’ve got to make this because I’m on a poster,’” Tammaro said. “That’s not how the world works. He may feel the need to play well because he wants us to win, but he would feel that way if he was at UCLA or Arizona or Texas. When you look back at the reasons he picked ASU, he wanted to do this.”
Carson enjoys the spotlight. He has done countless interviews, appears periodically on sports shows and even answered questions from the bench during a TV broadcast last season.
“When people put expectations on you, they think you’re capable of it,” he said. “I don’t ever shy away from it. I’m blessed to be in the position I am. A lot of people would want to be the face of a program.”
Carson is no stranger to pressure-packed moments on the court, either. In his only game at Jobing.com Arena in high school, Carson finished five points from a state scoring record when he fouled out with 1:35 left in the 2011 semifinals against Brophy. The year before, he raced the length of the floor for a game-winning lay-up against No. 1 Phoenix North.
In the summer of 2011, he made the USA Under-19 World Championship team as the only high schooler.
“I prepared myself mentally a long time ago for this,” Carson said. “I don’t ever try to get myself too wound up, to where now I’m nervous, where now I’m intimidated, now I forget plays. I go out there and say, ‘I’ve been mentally in this position many times before, so it’s just going to be the same thing when I step on the court.”
But this is different.
Without Keala King and Trent Lockett — the team’s two leading scorers from a year ago who are now at Long Beach State and Marquette, respectively, plus Kyle Cain — Carson will have to shine immediately for the team to succeed. Even then, it might not happen.
The Sun Devils finished 10-21 last year and preseason prognostications have pegged them 11th in the Pac-12.
“The expectation that he’s going to perform, I don’t think it catches him off guard,” said Vanae Carson, Jahii’s mother. “I don’t think he feels any pressure (in that sense). I do think the expectation that he’s going to save a program might. He’s been expected to be Superman, to save the day. He’s been very successful at that, but it’s a new level. He’s not Jahiisus, as they’re calling him.”
Sendek is also trying to pull back the reins.
“Some of these mythological expectations some people are creating, in essence, aren’t really fair to him,” Sendek said. “I assure you when he comes out Saturday he will be wearing an Arizona State shirt. He won’t be wearing an ‘S’ and a cape.”
But what if he does do it all in one fell swoop? Could it be a short stay at Arizona State and a possible move to the NBA? Tough to say, but Vanae is going on all but one road trip this season, just in case.
“If this ends up being his only year, I’ll get to enjoy that with him,” she said. “I’d prefer if he stayed two or three but you don’t know. We see what (Arizona guard) Nick (Johnson) is doing and (former Washington star and current Memphis Grizzlies guard) Tony Wroten. They know Jahii and they’re telling Jahii that he shouldn’t have much trouble.”
There have been cautionary tales recently, from King, who came in a highly-ranked recruit, to Daniel Bejarano, the former North star who couldn’t crack the rotation at Arizona and transferred to Colorado State.
Tammaro has seen players like Eddie House, Ike Diogu and James Harden excel with the Sun Devils, but he’s also seen countless others flame out.
He’s all-in on Carson, and he’s hoping the fans are, too.
“My thing to people is, if you’re a Sun Devil basketball fan you owe this kid this year,” Tammaro said. “You really do. He could have gone anywhere. He could have gone down south (to Arizona) like the rest of them. But he decided to stay.
“When he scores his first bucket, there’s going to be a louder cheer than when Jordan or Carrick (Felix) score their first bucket. It’s just natural.”
Vanae Carson and every family member in the state will be at Saturday’s game; Burcar, too.
In two days, Carson will wake up for his early math class once again and then make the walk to study hall.
In three, the jersey will be on and the journey will begin.
“I think about it,” Carson said. “I’m not going to say I don’t think about it. But as far as the pressure? I just try to go out there and play my game. I’ve played against the best of the best, and I’ve competed. When the lights turn on, I think I’ll be pretty well-prepared to live up to all of those expectations people have for me.”