Is Michigan State's Fabulous Freshman a Surefire NBA Star?

Is Michigan State's Fabulous Freshman a Surefire NBA Star?

Jaren Jackson Jr. (No. 2) of the Michigan State Spartans is defended by Isaiah Livers (No. 4) of the Michigan Wolverines during the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament at New York City's Madison Square Garden on March 3, 2018. The Wolverines defeated the Spartans 75-64.

SourceSteven Ryan/Getty

Why you should care

Because March is for the Madness. 

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Watching Jaren Jackson Jr. can be frustrating. Between swished corner threes, putback dunks and astounding blocks, Michigan State’s super freshman is apt to disappear. This is not meant to discredit Jackson’s skill or drive. Rather, the rage when one of college basketball’s most exciting prospects rides the pine, due to foul trouble and trust issues, is a credit to Jackson’s outsize potential. Win or lose, watching the Michigan State Spartans becomes an exercise in patience: When will we see more Jaren Jackson?

It’s the same question his Hall of Fame coach is asking.

“Jaren has done a good job,” Tom Izzo tells OZY, moments after beating Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals on March 2. “He’s a shot blocker who can change the game at the four or the five [position].… We just have to keep him in the game because Jaren Jackson is very valuable to this team.”

I know sometimes I won’t be out there long, because I foul somebody or do something stupid.

Jaren Jackson Jr.

Compared with other freshman big men dominating college basketball, Jackson, 18, has flown under the radar. While Arizona’s Deandre Ayton and Duke’s Marvin Bagley III have posted 20-and-11 seasons and play most of the game, Jackson has a much shorter leash, and his stat line — 11.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks in only 22.2 minutes per game — hardly tells the full story. Unlike most college coaches, Izzo has a stacked roster that allows him to sit his future lottery pick, both for rest and reprimand. Between flashes of brilliance, the 6-foot-11 Jackson often finds himself in foul trouble, playing as part of a four-man rotation featuring sophomore Nick Ward, senior Gavin Schilling and freshman (and Jackson’s roommate) Xavier Tillman. Now, following a 12-day layoff before March Madness, Jackson’s versatility — and ability to stay on the floor — will anchor any potential title run. After that, the case could be made that he will be the most well-rounded one-and-done player in the NBA draft. If he decides to go.

“Everybody in the NBA is looking for a ‘unicorn’ prospect,” says Turner NCAA analyst Steve Smith, who also starred at Michigan State before a 14-year NBA career. “Well, [Jackson] can shoot threes, he’s good in the post, and I’ve never seen a young kid with such great timing on defense.… His potential is off the charts.”

A McDonald’s All-American out of Carmel, Indiana, Jackson was the country’s ninth-ranked high school recruit last summer. He combines exceptional defensive instincts with deep shooting range, great mobility and above-average passing — a complete game for which he thanks (at least in part) his father. Jaren Jackson Sr. starred at Georgetown in the late 1980s before playing 13 seasons for nine different NBA teams. In 1999, months before his son was born, Jackson helped the San Antonio Spurs win the franchise’s first NBA title. “He’s my favorite player,” Jaren says of his dad. “He taught me everything I know. I’ve always wanted to be like him.”

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Jaren Jackson Jr. reacts to a play during the game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Breslin Center on Jan. 10, 2018, in East Lansing, Michigan.

Source Rey Del Rio/Getty

But Dad was not the only basketball force in the Jackson household. When Jaren was 13, his mother, Terri Carmichael Jackson, became the director of law, policy and governance at the NCAA. Headquartered in Indianapolis, the gig moved the family to basketball-crazed Indiana and made Terri acutely aware of every NCAA rules violation her son might encounter on the Amateur Athletic Union circuit or the recruiting trail. In a season where pay-for-play corruption has gripped the game’s biggest programs, Terri’s strict rules of operation kept bad actors at bay. “I didn’t even have to try to stay on the straight and narrow because she scared everybody away,” Jackson says with a chuckle. “I was squeaky-clean!”

On March 5, Jackson was named both Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year — the latter convincing most NBA scouts that he’s ready for the next level now. And, in spurts, it’s easy to see Jackson’s full potential. In the early moments of Michigan State’s nail-biting win over Wisconsin, he easily won the tipoff before proceeding to drop-step through the body and soul of Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ. An ensuing blocked shot and assist led to an emphatic flex from the lanky teen, as if Wisconsin needed any more evidence that they were being outgunned by an 18-year-old opponent.

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Jackson drives to the basket while being defended by Isaiah Livers (No. 4) of the Michigan Wolverines on Jan. 13, 2018.

Source Rey Del Rio/Getty

But from there, like so often this season, Jackson got lost in the shuffle. He eventually fouled out with 7 points, three rebounds and just 15 minutes played. In the New York Knicks locker room after the game, between joking with Tillman and heading out to greet his parents, Jackson was surprisingly self-aware. “I know sometimes I won’t be out there long, because I foul somebody or do something stupid,” he said. “But if I can limit mistakes, my productivity will increase because I can do a lot of different things on the court.”

As a No. 3 seed with only four losses on the season, Michigan State is a favorite to make the eighth Final Four trip of Izzo’s tenure. All-American forward Miles Bridges, point guard Cassius Winston and their package of impactful big men make the Spartans a threat whether Jackson plays 15 minutes or 35. But MSU is just 3-4 against top competition and, in their losses — to Duke, Ohio State and Michigan (twice) — they’ve been exposed by teams that spread the floor offensively and can defend the post. If Michigan State wins the title, you can bet Jaren Jackson avoided foul trouble and was highly engaged on both ends of the floor.

“For this team, I’m more of a defensive stopper and spot-up shooter,” Jackson continues. “We have plenty of players that can create offense.… I’ll save that for next year.”

Or maybe, Jaren, try it next week.

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