Jaren Jackson Jr. is 18 years old, 6 feet 11 inches tall and already anchoring the No. 7 defense in the country, per KenPom. The Michigan State Spartans possibly have the most talented lineup Tom Izzo has assembled in more than 20 years of coaching, and Jackson is the prize of the group. He could be the Spartans’ highest draft selection since Magic Johnson nearly 40 years ago if his NCAA Tournament play separates himself from the three other high-lottery bigs. Mock drafts already project him to be selected among the top 7 picks.
At first glimpse, Jackson’s physique is that of the NBA center of the future. Jackson is lengthy and thin enough to glide down the court with ease. He’s quick off his feet, and his 7-foot-4 wingspan makes it easy to envision him as a top-level defender. He’s already a shot-blocking menace (3.9 per game) who alters attempts all over the floor.
Jackson’s box score numbers don’t “wow” in the same way his peers’ do. He’s scoring 11 points and grabbing 6 rebounds per game ― stats that don’t give the appearance of a future star. But he is one. There simply aren’t enough opportunities on a star-studded Michigan State team for him to dominate the ball.
Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton puts up a gaudy 19 points and 11 rebounds per game, Duke’s Marvin Bagley tallies 21 and 11, and Texas’ Mo Bamba puts up 13 and 11. But none of those three make a more well-rounded impact on the game than Jackson does, despite having the ball in their hands way more often than the Spartans’ big does.
That’s why it’s safe to say Jackson has the highest ceiling of these four standout freshmen who are destined to enter the draft. He can do a lot with a little ― playing both ends of the floor well already ― and he’s the youngest of the group.
So how has Jackson earned the right to be selected as the top center prospect?
Jaren Jackson is a premier defender
Jackson has the smarts and physical attributes to play anywhere and everywhere on defense. His length and size make it easy for him to defend the paint, but more impressive is how he’s defending outside of it.
Jackson isn’t simply a behemoth waiting in the restricted area to swat shots; he’s nimble enough to chase guards off the perimeter or stay in front of them off the drive. This is the one defining aspect that separates Jackson from Bamba, the other sure lottery pick known for his defensive abilities.
Guarding positions 1 through 5 is crucial, as players of all sizes have become 3-point shooting threats. Izzo trusts Jackson to switch off screens, and that’s what’s made Michigan State so tough defensively. There’s no getting a clean look over Jackson’s outstretched arms.
Defensive versatility will earn Jackson minutes as a rookie no matter where he lands. Bamba, Ayton and Bagley don’t have it yet.
With Jackson on the court, the Spartans are allowing just 88.4 points per 100 possessions, by far the best mark on the team.
Jaren Jackson is the most efficient big man shooter in the lottery
Jackson’s box score numbers can’t compete with the offensive numbers posted by the other probable lottery picks because of the role he serves on his team. Ayton and Bagley are the top offensive options for the Wildcats and Blue Devils, while Jackson takes the fifth-most shots behind star Miles Bridges and Cassius Winston, the Big Ten’s top point guard. Michigan State is stacked with scorers, and Jackson’s energy is mostly channeled into defending the rim and perimeter.
When Jackson’s name is called, though, he’s far exceeding expectations. His team is clearly underutilizing him on offense, and it would be wise of Izzo to ramp up his number of touches come NCAA Tournament time.
Jackson’s shooting 43.4 percent on 2.8 3-point attempts per game (83 in total), which is by far the best mark of any of the four prospective lottery bigs.
There are some slight concerns to Jackson’s shooting approach. He tends to bring the ball low before rising up into his shot, and his release point is low. The timing of that motion could prove costly at the next level, and his low release point sacrifices the gift that is his 6-foot-11 size. But he compensates with an otherwise quick release and stunning accuracy. He’s made 5 3s in a game on two occasions, once on 6 attempts and once on 8.
He’s also shooting 78.5 percent from the free-throw line.
Jaren Jackson has touch around the rim, too
Jackson can work an inside-out game to keep defenders honest off the drive or on the 3-point line. He’s no back-to-the-basket powerhouse, but Jackson has a sweet array of baby hook shots to either side among other quick drop-step post moves that flash what he can do with the ball in his hands.
He’s shooting 60.1 percent from 2-point range, finding success scoring at the 4 spot when he’s asked to play next to another big such as Nick Ward, or at the 5.
There’s a lot to love about Jackson when he’s getting his right share of touches. The problem is that he’s only attempted 10 or more shots once in conference play. He finished with a career-high 27 points on 14 shots against Minnesota.
How good Jaren Jackson’s game can get from here is up for debate
Jackson is showing NBA scouts exactly what he can contribute. He won’t need years of development as a scorer the way Bamba will; he doesn’t have any glaring weakness like Bagley on the defensive end; and he doesn’t lack the shot-blocking prowess of Ayton.
Jackson isn’t without flaws, but he’s already a competent scorer who defends better than most college players. Most of the criticisms of him entering the draft stem from playing on a team with too much talent. Aside from his lack of touches, there’s little unknown about Jackson’s game, and it feels as if we already know the player he will become. The pipe dreams of Bamba developing a consistent 3-point range, or Bagley and Ayton becoming rim protectors, will be a bit more enticing for teams willing to take risks.
There’s reason why Jackson’s labeled as the safest pick among bigs in the draft with the highest ceiling. A shot-blocking, long-armed shooter whose proved himself in a power conference on a winning team is almost certainly going to make it at the next level. It’s hard to imagine he’ll bust.
But for now, since he doesn’t even command close to a lion’s share of the Spartans’ shot attempts, Jackson doesn’t feel like the franchise-altering superstar Bamba, Bagley or Ayton might become. Still, he should make an important piece to some team’s puzzle.
Whichever team selects Jaren Jackson Jr. this summer will do so without much doubt in what they’re getting, however: an all-around talent.