MSU's Jaren Jackson Jr. talks about facing Miles Bridges at Moneyball and dealing with expectations. Matt Charboneau, Detroit News
Dimondale, Mich. — By next June, there’s a decent chance Jaren Jackson Jr. will be a lottery pick in the NBA Draft.
On Thursday night at the Moneyball Pro-Am at Aim High Sports, the incoming Michigan State freshman was simply that — a freshman being shown a thing or two by a guy who knows a little about being a highly touted freshman.
Miles Bridges, who is even more likely to be among those lottery selections next summer, decided to put that possibility off for a season to return to Michigan State as a sophomore. And in the first meeting of Bridges’ Green team and Jackson’s Volt team, it didn’t take long for the more experienced player to put the youngster in his place.
Midway through the first half, after the 6-foot-11 Jackson grabbed a rebound, his putback was sent into the bleachers by the 6-7 Bridges.
The crowd roared. Jackson looked back quickly, saw it was Bridges. After a second, the duo broke out in wide smiles.
Welcome to a whole new level of play, Bridges seemed to be saying.
“He got me. That was good,” Jackson said as he laughed following the game. “I have to try to never let that happen again.”
What happens at Moneyball is typically all in fun, and that play was no different. But it can also be a glimpse of what could come this fall when Michigan State will have expectations as high as any team in the country.
The expectations for Jackson will be nearly as high.
Jackson, a McDonald’s All-American, was one of the top recruits in the country, and just a few possessions after he had his shot swatted he showed why, stepping back and hitting a deep shot from the corner over Bridges.
“Jaren is a great player,” said MSU guard Tum Tum Nairn, who played on the Green team with Bridges. “He’s long, athletic, he can shoot the three and has a great touch on the wing. I’m excited about him.”
That’s the general feeling of everyone at Michigan State.
On Thursday, his teammates were in lock-step of their praise for Jackson.
“A lot of blocked shots, a lot of intensity,” Bridges said of what to expect from Jackson. “Just a young kid ready to play.”
There will be plenty of lessons for Jackson to learn over the next few months as Michigan State prepares to tip off in early November. The fans get their first look at Moneyball, but much of the work comes with few watching.
The Spartans have already had limited workouts and it’s there Jackson is realizing what life will be like when the games start counting. He’s battled with the bigs, squaring off with Nick Ward, Gavin Schilling and fellow freshman Xavier Tillman. He’s gone at it with Bridges and taken his turn at guarding wings like Joshua Langford and Matt McQuaid.
It’s all been part of the process for Jackson.
“Nick has blocked my shot into the bleachers, Miles has done some crazy dunks, Josh is going at me,” Jackson said. “So in different ways all the players on the team have gone at me so I’ve realized the speed of the game is gonna change.”
The Spartans are counting on Jackson to adapt to that change quickly. Figuring out Moneyball is a work in progress. The players, while maybe not as talented as Jackson and some of the other MSU players, are strong and play to win. Thriving in that environment will only help Jackson.
MSU sophomore Miles Bridges talks about freshman standout Jaren Jackson Jr. Matt Charboneau, Detroit News
Doing so with the added pressure of being the top recruit is something Bridges understands.
“I tell him don’t play attention to (the hype),” Bridges said. “Just pay attention to winning the game and that’s it.”
It didn’t take long for Jackson to realize how much pressure there might be this season. He’s played just two games of the Moneyball schedule and was admittedly taken aback by the large crowds. When he arrived in town last week to watch, fans flocked to him for autographs, forming lines that rivaled that of Bridges.
However, none of it has made Jackson at all apprehensive. If anything, it pushes him harder to become the player everyone expects him to become.
“I hold myself to a high standard when I play in front of people that embrace you like that,” Jackson said. “I think I just want to go out and perform the best I can and play hard.”
He’s doing that at Moneyball, scoring 20 points on Thursday as his Volt team held off the Green, led by 31 points from Bridges. But he’s doing it back on campus, too.
Jackson sees how good the Spartans can be. He sees the way Bridges approaches the game, the limitless potential of Langford and Ward, the leadership of Nairn and the way every player goes hard on a regular basis.
It has Jackson eager to start his MSU career. It has him ready to prove he can live up to the hype.
“It makes me work harder,” he said of the talent on the Spartans roster. “It influences me to try to prove myself that I can run with the big dogs a little bit, to try and work my way into the team the best way I can and just build confidence within them, that they can trust me when it comes to the games.”
Tum Tum Nairn on working on his game at Moneyball and the development of MSU's freshmen. Matt Charboneau, Detroit News