EAST LANSING, Mich. — The Breslin Center crowd chanted a vulgar eight-letter word Thursday night. Called for his fourth foul, Jaren Jackson Jr. put his hands over his mouth, maybe to prevent himself from doing the same.
No. 3 Michigan State’s star freshman forward had only been in the game for 1:02 in the second half against Notre Dame. He hit a 3-pointer on one end of the floor, then got called for a slight tap to the wrist of Irish forward Bonzie Colson. At the start the of the second period, Jackson had played only 30 seconds before getting whistled for a charge.
“We had some guys that played real well, but we got to keep Jaren Jackson in the game,” an exasperated coach Tom Izzo said. “I thought, ‘Man, you get some tough calls,’ but that was the big difference in the game. I thought his length and his athletic ability and the fact that in the second half we just weren’t quite as sharp to start was the difference.”
Michigan State beat Notre Dame, 81-63, largely because of its start to the game. And Jackson was instrumental in that. Two of his 3 first-half blocks rejected the shots of Colson, a preseason All-America selection. The Spartans built the 18-point lead by which they would win in just 9:25 to start the first half.
But it might have grown much larger if not for Jackson’s fouls. Michigan State outscored the Irish by 13 points when he was in the game, but he played only 14 minutes. It’s becoming a trend. He’s played an average of 21.1 minutes per game and been whistled for a foul an average of every 6 minutes he’s on the floor. He leads the team in personal fouls committed with 25.
“I’ve got to be more under control when I have the ball,” said Jackson, a 6-foot-11 forward. “I’ve got to work on keeping my head up and making reads and making plays. I’m kind of making head-down plays. I got that charge [foul] by just charging in out of control. I’ve got to be willing to see the kick out, stuff like that. For the most part, I’ve got to work on not getting fouls because that’s been a trend, just me getting limited minutes because of my fouls.”
The coaches have done their best to combat it in practice. “They just yell at me,” Jackson said. Typically it’s not for blocking fouls so much as swipes with his arms. He’s got a 7-foot-4 wingspan and won’t shy away from using it.
Forward Nick Ward knows the foul-trouble feeling. Michigan State had much less depth a year ago during his freshman season, and yet Ward still found himself saddled with at least 4 fouls on 11 occasions. He fouled out of 3 games. It’s all a part of the learning curve that comes with being a first-year player.
“He’s 7-foot,” Ward said of Jackson. “He can touch the rim standing. Not many people are going to make a shot over you if you just stand straight up. So once he realizes that, he’ll be fine.”
It doesn’t help that Jackson has been matched up against arguably the opponent’s best player in all three games against top-10 teams: Duke’s Marvin Bagley, North Carolina’s Luke Maye and Notre Dame’s Colson. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It just seems to happen,” Jackson said. “But it’s fun. It’s a challenge. They’re older. They’ll try tricks, different things. It’s just a learning process, but all those matchups help me down the road.”
They will help him most if he can stay on the floor. So far this season, Jackson has averaged 9.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. That translates to 40-minute averages of 17.6 points, 14.1 rebounds and 3.8 blocks. He should be somewhere in between.
Whether it’s his shot-blocking and shot-affecting abilities, his rebounding or his outside shooting at his size, there’s a lot Michigan State can’t replace when Jackson sits on the bench.
“He just can play basketball really well, and I don’t think he understands how good he is yet,” sophomore guard Josh Langford said. “He’s a great player, and he’s going to be a great player in the future, in college basketball, in the NBA soon, whenever that may be.”
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