Niyo: Another ‘lightning strike’ hits MSU with Jaren Jackson

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Freshmen Jaren Jackson Jr., left, and Xavier Tillman add height and depth to Michigan State’s front court this season.

East Lansing — Like everyone else in the business, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo sees the dark clouds looming overhead, and he hears the thunder rumbling as a still-unraveling recruiting scandal — part of an ongoing federal investigation — shakes the college basketball landscape.

But the Hall of Fame coach doesn’t feel the need to take cover, nor does he worry about the other Division I programs in Michigan.

“I think our state is sleeping fine,” he said.

And when Izzo sits back and watches his own team scrimmage inside Breslin Center, he can’t help but look at the Spartans — a trendy Final Four pick heading into the 2017-18 season — and smile at his good fortune.

“I think lightning struck twice,” Izzo said Monday, as he held court for more than an hour at Michigan State’s basketball media day.

He was referring not just to the return of star Miles Bridges, who passed up the NBA draft last spring — barely even considered it, actually — to return for his sophomore season, but also to the arrival of another projected one-and-done talent in Jaren Jackson Jr., a 6-foot-11 forward who was a top-10 national recruit.

And he was referring to the inevitable rush to judgment players of that caliber face, both on the court and off it, trying to fit into a new team while everyone on the outside tries to fit them for a professional career.

Bridges, to the surprise of many, found a way to ignore all that drama last winter, and now that he’s back for more, there’s a social learning experiment taking place that Izzo knows is unique to college hoops.

More: Now bigger, MSU basketball hopes to be better

“Two character kids, incredible families,” the coach said, referencing Bridges and Jackson, both of whom are potential NBA lottery picks next June. “You know, I don’t know what Jaren will do. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do. What he’s got to do is get better to make us a better team this year. I think that’s what he’s setting his sights on.

“But I think in (Bridges), he’s got a good role model to learn from. Take care of your business, let the rest handle itself. Don’t worry about all the other things. Worry about being the best freshman you can be. And if that turns out to be good enough, that he moves on because it’s what he should do …”

Well, then, Izzo will tell him to jump, once he finds out how high the NBA values his talent, just as he did with Bridges last year.

One of the guys

Until then, Jackson says he’ll just play “follow the leader,” which is easy enough to do since he’s living with Bridges, sophomore guard Josh Langford and senior co-captain Tum Tum Nairn, whom Jackson already refers to as “the best leader in the country, hands down.”

The only drawback to that living arrangement so far, apparently, is that “Tum doesn’t sleep,” Jackson said. But even there, he finds a kindred spirit in Bridges, who half-jokingly agrees, “Tum is always up early in the morning, waking everybody else up, telling 'em to get breakfast.”

Still, when it comes to the freshman, Bridges says, “We don’t baby him or anything.” They might laugh at him every now and then. (“He dances a lot,” Bridges says, “and he’s a 7-foot kid.”) And while he doesn’t look his age — he just turned 18 last month — Jackson certainly sounds like a kid on occasion, whether it’s his love of the cult-hit cartoon show “Rick and Morty” or his excitement over the return — spurred by that same show — of McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets’ Szechuan sauce.

“I’m definitely gonna hit up McDonald’s,” Jackson laughed Monday, before quickly adding, “but not too much, because you’ve got to stay in shape.”

His shape already has changed rather dramatically since arriving in East Lansing after winning a national championship with his La Lumiere (Ind.) prep school team in April, playing alongside Brian Bowen, the fellow five-star recruit now at the center of that FBI probe.

Jackson has added nearly 20 pounds to bulk up to what he feels is an ideal weight — in the 240-245 range — for his freshman year. That’ll suit him well once the regular season starts next month and Jackson, with a stretch-four skill set and a 7-foot-4 wingspan, is called on to do a little bit of everything, whether it’s spacing the floor or crashing the boards.

“I’m confident in my ability to do a lot of different things,” Jackson said. “Whatever Coach wants, I got it.”

He’s got plenty of company, too. This might be Izzo’s most talented team. It’s also one of the biggest, so Jackson’s newfound strength is getting tested daily in practice against the likes of Nick Ward, Gavin Schilling and fellow freshman Xavier Tillman. And when he doesn’t measure up, or when he gets caught floating on the perimeter too much — “I’m 6-11 and sometimes that slips my mind for a second, surprisingly,” he said — he hears about it from Izzo and the rest of the coaching staff.

“He makes sure I get better every day,” Jackson said. “I wouldn’t say he’s hard on me. If he didn’t give me criticism, that would mean he didn’t care. Sometimes I wish he’d criticize me more.”

Be careful what you wish for, I suppose. And when asked if he has truly felt Izzo’s wrath, barely two weeks into fall practice, he’s quick to admit, “I don’t think I’ve gotten that yet. I’ll let you know when that happens. Or you just might see it.”

Parents help

It’s easy to see — and hear — Jackson is not your typical freshman, in talent or temperament, however. And for that, he begins by thanking his parents.

His father, Jaren Jackson Sr, played college ball at Georgetown for John Thompson, one of the game’s most intimidating figures, then managed to carve out a 13-year NBA career — including an NBA championship with San Antonio in 1999 — despite going undrafted out of college. His mother, Terri Carmichael Jackson, is now director of operations for the WNBA Players’ Association after earlier work as the NCAA’s director of law, policy and governance.

“My mom is stone-cold — there’s nothing in the world that can get to my mother,” Jackson said.

More: Michigan State gives Nairn ‘A’ for leadership

Nothing seems to get to Bridges, either, which is part of the reason he’s still here in a Michigan State uniform. And why there’s no better place for Jackson to be.

“I mean, just look at him now,” Jackson said of Bridges. “I don’t really have to ask him much. Mostly, he kind of just leads by example. But (the message is), just be yourself, be humble, stay grounded. And just always remember why you came here. You came here to get better, you came here to win and you came here to chase your dreams. If you just focus on those things, you should be fine.”