ORLANDO – Is it possible, NBA talent evaluators have to be wondering these days, that the player with the most can’t-miss, superstar potential is actually the youngest available?
How is it also possible, those same talent evaluators have to be pondering, could it be that this same dynamic and difference-making talent appeared in only slightly more than half of his team’s minutes during his one collegiate season?
Could it also be possible that while DeAndre Ayton is the best offensive center available and Mohamed Bamba is the most intimidating defensive presence that Jaren Jackson Jr. is actually the most complete package of the three big men?
Jackson Jr., or ``3-J’’ as he’s affectionately nicknamed by those who watched him dominate games in a variety of ways this past season at Michigan State, possesses the kinds of skills rarely seen in big men still three months shy of their 19th birthday. How about this sort of diversity in his game: He blocked three-or-more shots in a game 20 times, while also registering eight games with two-or-more 3-point shots.
He is, some NBA scouts think, the poster boy for the prototypical big man in today’s small-ball, space-and-pace NBA because of all the things he can do.
``I hear that a lot about my game,’’ Jackson Jr. said in reference to him being the most complete player available for the June 21st draft. ``You see where the league is going – a lot of 3-point shooting and fast-pace and everything is kind of a (defensive) switch. You have to be able to move, be nimble on your feet and quick.’’
Is he ever? At a towering 6-foot-11, a svelte 242 pounds and possessing a massive 7-foot-5 1/4 wingspan, Jackson Jr. can take over games in a variety of ways. He certainly did that this past season for Michigan State in games against Duke (19 points, seven rebounds, three blocks and three 3-pointers), Rutgers (11 points, three rebounds and eight blocked shots), Michigan (19 points and six blocks), Maryland (15 points, five threes and three blocks), Minnesota (27 points, five 3-pointers, six rebounds and three blocked shots), Indiana (10 points and seven blocks), and Illinois (21 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks).
The most shocking statistic of all, however, might be that Jackson Jr. did it while playing just 21.8 minutes a night for the talent-rich Spartans this past season. Because he shared time with another likely top-10 pick, center Miles Bridges, Jackson Jr. averaged just 10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.0 blocks a game while shooting 51.3 percent from the floor, 39.6 percent from 3-point range and 79.7 percent from the free throw line.
Most likely, Jackson Jr. – who doesn’t turn 19 years old until Sept. 15 – will be long gone by the time the Orlando Magic pick at No. 6 in the draft. However, the Magic could potentially be one of the teams willing to trade into the top three of the draft in order to nab the promising big man.
Despite being vastly underused by Michigan State – he got just 6.4 shots a game over the season and scored only eight points in two NCAA Tournament games – Jackson Jr. won’t have to adjust his style of play one bit at the NBA level because of the many dimensions to his talent base. Whereas Arizona’s Ayton – the likely No. 1 pick by the Phoenix Suns – is a better scorer and Texas’ Bamba has a freakishly long 7-foot-10 wingspan with which to swat shots, Jackson Jr. might just be the best player of the three because of the completeness of how he plays on both ends of the floor.
As a true freshman, he blocked a whopping 15.4 percent of all two-point shots taken against the Spartans – a number that was the highest in college basketball in eight seasons. When his production is factored out over a 100-possession basis, he would average 29.3 points, 15.6 rebounds and 8.1 blocked shots a night.
``Defense was always something I focused on first and that help translate to my offense,’’ said Jackson Jr., who noted that he struggled with the decision to turn pro because he felt he had so much left to give at Michigan State. ``I worked a lot on that, because you’ve got to play both sides of the ball. To be a two-way player on both sides of the ball is hard, especially in the NBA. And I’m going to definitely work on both sides.’’
Some of that work this offseason has come alongside of future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett, a player he has already been compared to because of the intensity and ferocity that he plays with at times.
``I watched K.G., everybody watched K.G.,’’ he said with a wide smile. ``The biggest thing I took away from (Garnett) was his intensity. He puts a lot of emphasis on just being intense and playing hard. If you do anything hard, you’re going to be successful and steel sharpens steel. You want to go against the best players you can find all the time.’’
Early in his life while living in New Jersey and later Indiana, Jackson Jr. had a pretty good player to pattern his game after. His father, Jaren Jackson Sr., played in the NBA for 12 years from 1989-2002, finishing up his career with the Magic in ‘02. He credits his father, a solid wing during his playing days, for helping him become a big man with outside shooting range and guard-like skills.
``I don’t remember anything. I was crawling around in the playroom in games when he was playing,’’ Jackson Jr. said playfully while mocking his father’s age. ``All of his experiences he can give back to me is just crazy. He’s been through everything. He’s played at all three levels – high school, college and the NBA, and even though he wasn’t drafted, his path was very different than mine. He gives me the room to have my own path, but he gives me a lot of advice as well.
``I think my dad always had me shoot in a gym, whether that was a role on a team I was playing with or not,’’ he added. ``That was always something he wanted me to do – to stay consistent and fluid. So that came from my pops.’’
Now, he’s prepared to take his wide array of talents to the NBA where, despite his age and despite his relative lack of use at Michigan State, he might just prove to be the best big man of the bunch.
``You see it in the (NBA playoffs), a lot of teams play with spacing and you have to be able to handle the ball, and you can’t be a liability on defense or offense in terms of shooting,’’ Jackson Jr. stressed. ``I feel like I can (stay) out there, I feel like I can space the floor and help my teammates.’’
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