Late in Michigan State’s victory at Illinois on Monday, Jaren Jackson Jr. decided one highlight-reel dunk was hardly enough.
The 6-foot-11 freshman already had gotten his teammates up off their feet early in the second half when he crossed over Illinois’ Mark Smith, drove to the lane and dunked with his left hand while getting fouled. It gave the Spartans a 13-point lead and effectively put the game out of reach.
However, Jackson wasn’t done.
With just more than four minutes to play and the Fighting Illini doing their best to mount a comeback, Jackson wrestled away a rebound near his own free-throw line from a pair of Illinois players and took off down the court, never once thinking about giving the ball up.
Jackson split two defenders and ran over Trent Frazier as he soared to the basket for another two-handed dunk, giving the Spartans an 18-point lead.
“Sometimes he does something where you’re just like, ‘Wow, where did they find this guy?’ ” sophomore teammate Cassius Winston said. “You know what I’m saying? He’s a special talent. Playing like that just shows it to you.”
There’s been glimpses of that type of play all season, the type of play that has NBA scouts dreaming of what Jackson could become at the next level. A likely lottery pick when he does decide to leave Michigan State, Jackson has the size to dominate in the post, but the athletic ability to play on the wing and attack the basket.
It’s that part of his game that has flourished in the past few weeks as he’s relied less on shooting 3-pointers and mixed things up more often.
“I can do a lot of different things on the court,” Jackson said. “So I just need to learn to pick my spots better depending on who’s guarding me and what the team playing me like.
“It’s been a tremendous effort in practice, mostly trying to figure out ways to get open so my teammates can find me and what spots where I can get the ball and be effective.”
It’s turning out there aren’t many places Jackson can’t be effective. He is shooting 44.6 percent from 3-point range, but the past few games have shown how being more aggressive can pay off.
In the Michigan game, Jackson scored 19 and made just one triple. On Monday, he was attacking from the opening tip and taking advantage of an Illinois defense that pressured the ball.
“He showed me something, that he could do more than I thought he could do,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Just the job he did, the end-to-end with the left hand was big-time, then the drive in there (earlier in the second half).
“Everybody just looks at him like as a 3-point shooter. He’s far from that and in this game, because they pressured him so much, he showed that he can put it on the floor. For a 6-11 guy to do that the way he did, it is impressive.”
That, of course, is just the offensive part of Jackson’s game. What hasn’t wavered from Day One is the fact Jackson is a rim protector the Spartans haven’t often had. It’s a big reason why the Spartans are No. 1 in the nation in field-goal percentage defense.
With six more blocks on Monday against Illinois, Jackson is just one shy of matching the Michigan State single-season record of 72 set by Ken Johnson in 1984-85.
“I didn’t even know that,” Jackson said, hollering across the locker room to brag to teammate Miles Bridges. “One more to tie it. That’s great.”
Of course, Jackson will do far more than tie the mark — he’ll cruise past it, likely on Friday when No. 6 Michigan State (18-3, 6-2 Big Ten) hosts Wisconsin.
And the Spartans are happy for that chance after Jackson took a shot to the head late in the first half Monday and headed to the locker room. But it hardly kept Jackson down. He said he quickly felt fine and ended up playing 30 minutes.
“That’s another thing I learned about him,” Izzo said. “He has even more toughness than I anticipated, so those things were all positives for us.”
Positives might be an understatement, but the Spartans are hardly nitpicking. They have a freshman who changes games on both ends of the floor who’s looking more comfortable every game. And, he happens to be building quite the highlight reel.
Of course, as much as his teammates love that, they never let him forget he’s still a freshman.
“We still trash talk him and push him around a little bit,” Winston said.
But that’s all in good fun. What the Spartans truly understand is how good they can be because of Jackson.
“It’s hard to single us out, especially if everyone is clicking,” Winston said. “It’s hard to pick one guy and say, ‘We’re gonna let this guy beat us,’ and that’s huge for this team.
“(Jackson) still does some things that just shock you. Even though we’re in practice with him every day he does something every now and then where you’re just like, ‘Wow, how did he do that?’ He’s a special talent.”
Michigan State single-season block leaders
■ Ken Johnson (1984-85): 72
■ Jaren Jackson Jr. (2017-18): 71
■ Deyonta Davis (2015-16): 64
■ Drew Naymick (2007-08): 60
■ Branden Dawson (2014-15): 58