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MSU's Jaren Jackson has 'tremendous upside,' but should he go pro?

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

San Antonio — To stay or go?

It sure seems like a simple enough decision to make for Jaren Jackson Jr., who recently completed his freshman season at Michigan State.

On the surface, it appears obvious. The 6-foot-11 forward with the ability to score inside and out while protecting the rim on defense is projected as a top-five pick in this summer’s NBA Draft. What comes with that status is guaranteed millions playing at the level most players dream of.

However, that’s not all that’s at play for Jackson.

There’s the fact he genuinely loves being in college at Michigan State, but that’s not enough to keep most players from following their ultimate dream — and a huge payday. For Jackson, however, the bigger issue is whether he’s mature enough to make the next step.

A care-free personality, Jackson was still 17 when he enrolled at Michigan State last year. That means, if he were to play just one season of college basketball, he’d enter is first NBA training camp at 18. That has some — his parents, in particular — wondering if Jackson would benefit from another year playing in college.

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It creates the very real situation where an almost certain top-five pick might put the NBA off for a season. Those close to the situation are having a hard time trying to predict which way Jackson might go, some believing it’s essentially a toss-up at this point.

But with the April 22 early entree deadline still weeks away, there doesn’t seem to be any rush. As Jackson’s father, Jaren Sr., said on Thursday, there is no timetable at this point other than the deadline.

“We are having great ongoing family conversations as Jaren Jr. thinks about his opportunities ahead,” Jackson Sr. said. “We are so proud of him to be in this position to have a true choice.”

When it comes to Jackson’s ability on the court, few are doubting the fact he’ll have a chance to become a star at the NBA level.

“Tremendous upside,” said a Western Conference executive who “loves” Jackson. “Can play power forward and small-ball center in some cases. Not a risk in the top five.

“He'll get better at shooting the three more aggressively."

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Jackson proved in his first season at Michigan State he has the ability to be a game-changer. While averaging 10.9 points and 5.8 rebounds, he also shot 39.6 percent from 3-point range and blocked 106 shots, a single-season record at Michigan State.

But the inability to stay out of foul trouble limited his minutes at times, creating a consensus that his game also could use some work. However, most believe that work can be done either at the NBA level or with the G League team of whichever organization drafts Jackson.

“I don’t think his game is ready yet,” Big Ten Network analyst Jon Crispin said. “It’s not a negative thing. He’s a young kid. He was a young freshman when he came in and he’d be a young sophomore. So he still has a lot of room to grow physically.

“And usually the physical abilities are what allow young guys to play. They don’t have skill set to be who they’re gonna be in the NBA yet. The guys he’s gonna go against are so physically superior that he’s not ready for that yet. The skillset will get developed with his body, but as much as people say he’s not ready, he’s gonna get developed in the NBA.”

Developing his game is just one concern. Developing into an adult is another.

It’s something that has derailed plenty of players in professional sports who had the physical ability but struggled adapting to a new way of life.

Jackson has the benefit of leaning on his father, who played 13 seasons in the NBA and won a title with the Spurs in 1999.

Even so, the adjustment can be hard when combined with learning to play at a higher level. Grant Hill understood that after winning a pair of national titles at Duke before becoming a first-round draft pick of the Pistons.

“I think it’s both,” said Hill, who will enter the Basketball Hall of Fame this year. “The basketball part, you’re dealing with men, stronger and more talented. To be in that league, you’ve got to be one of the best in the world, so they’re really good, really capable and that’s why they’re there. And now you have money, you’ve made it – the lifestyle, the freedom. College is more regimented in terms of your daily schedule. (In the NBA) you come home from practice at noon and got the rest of the day and so it’s different on and off the court.

“It’s an adjustment. It can be great and many people are able to make that seamless transition, but also it can be really, really tough.”

Few doubt Jackson would eventually make that transition.

He has the benefit of a supportive family. His father knows what life in the NBA is like and his mother, Terri, is director of operations for the WNBA Players Association, so the need to cash in on a big contract isn’t a factor. Which leaves most wondering what Jackson will decide.

“It would be a surprise (if he doesn’t leave early) because he’s a lottery pick,” ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg said.

“It all depends. I think he likes college. I think he’s a guy that could use another year. It’s not his game it’s his maturity. He’s a young guy that could use a year of maturity.

“He’s got a great base with his family. It wouldn’t be the worst thing (to stay in school), but he’s a pick-and-pop four that can guard, that can run the floor.”

So, stay or go?

It seems it’s not so simple, after all.