The state of Arizona has not produced a wealth of basketball talent. Just 19 NBA players prepped in the Grand Canyon State, Greg Smith the most recent and Sean Elliott the most successful. Mike Bibby, born in Phoenix and attended HS at Shadow Mountain, played the most NBA games of any Zonie, 1001. Arizona produced pros have played 125 cumulative seasons in The League. Comparatively, The Palmetto State (South Carolina) has produced 21 pros playing 170 seasons. Two additional pros, 45 mores seasons. By that sophomoric arithmetic, Arizonans generally aren’t that great of hoopsters. Those nineteen pros rank just 35th in America, ahead of Utah’s 17 (Shawn Bradley!) and behind the aforementioned 21 from SC (Jesus Shuttlesworth) and West Virginia (Logo).
So when players from the state move on to play Division 1 basketball, it’s a significant accomplishment. And when players in the state start scoring 40 points in a game or flirting with triple doubles, we’re on to something special.
Something special is what former Phoenix-area prep stars Jahii Carson and Nick Johnson are doing. Hailing from the same state as me, they chose to compete for rival universities and they’re currently crushing the college basketball scene.Let’s start with Carson, the riquickulous one, who almost single handedly defeated the Runnin’ Rebels Tuesday night. He scored 40 points and dished 7 assists. He played 39 minutes and in case you needed a refresher, college basketball games are 40 minutes long. He shot 64% afield and bucketed 1.02 points per minute. He’s a measly 5’10” and made 14 of his sixteen shots AT THE RIM. Do you realize that UNLV has blocked the ninth most shots in the nation (30)? That their 7.5 blocks per game rank fifteenth nationally? The Rebels saw Carson driving the lane and they were licking their chops, ready to put Carson’s shot into XS. Instead, they’re licking their wounds as Carson tear dropped his way – and how beautiful a shot is that floater? – to 40 points and the Devil’s first 5-0 start since Arizona was one year into 27 consecutive NCAA tournaments. What Carson has done in Tempe is nothing short of angelic. On this, his farewell tour, Carson is about to make sure we won’t soon forget his name. He’ll be remembered in the same breath as Fat Lever, Eddie House, and James Harden.
But like Lever before him, he’ll be special because of his Arizona ties. Lever prepped in Tucson, at Pueblo High School. The same HS I never lost to as a starting baseball player and where I got a 4 on a botched administration of the AP Spanish test (though honestly it could’ve been a 3). He’s a legend in the state.
And while Nick Johnson spent a portion of his prep years at Findlay in Las Vegas, make no mistake that he has strong ties as an Arizonan. His father is Joe Johnson who famously held the world record for dunking on the highest rim (11’7”) and attended ASU. Nick grew up in Gilbert before honing his skills at prep school. He now finds himself the centerpiece of a Final Four contender. His role, a changing one according to Sean Miller, is to be the leader of that team. High stakes for anyone, let alone an Arizona prep star. Allow me some other names who’ve held similar roles: Mike Bibby, Sean Elliott, Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson. Just one of those players never attended a Final Four (Frye) and we’re not going to talk about it. Every one of them was a lottery pick. That’s the sort of rare and special territory Johnson now finds himself in.
On Tuesday night, Johnson continued his onslaught of Arizona’s non-conference slate. And while it’s not been the most impressive competition, Johnson has been the Wildcats’ rock. Though it’s really too early to try and quantify his season, I’ll qualify it by citing his 23 points inside a raucous and hostile Viejas Arena. Early in the game Johnson squared up and hit a deep three pointer. Across most possessions, this might have been considered ill advised. But I thought it served as a message to his team. That it was OK for them to compete and that he had their backs. Sure the bucket may have come well before the first media timeout, but it resonated across his bench: Game on.
That’s Johnson’s new role, while Carson’s remains about the same: to be really damn good. They’re both fine ball players who grew up playing with and against one another. As the adage goes, you’ve got to play the best to be the best. Today they find that they’re the best after years of Middle school, playground, AAU, high school, and now college competition. Challenging one another to get better and better.
And that drive and competition has perhaps left something of a legacy. Jaron Hopkins out of Dobson High (2013) garnered big offers before winding up at Tad boyle’s blossoming program in Boulder. Michael Humphrey’s (Sunnyslope, #80 2014) is a big out of PHX and is headed to Stanford with fellow Zonie, Dorian Pickins (Pinnacle, 2014). Meanwhile, Zylan Cheatham (South Mountain, #68 2014) is headed to SDSU.
But that’s the future and we can keep an eye on that for another time.
For now, let’s enjoy what Johnson and Carson are doing. It doesn’t happen often.