Freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. and Xavier Tillman ready to take on pressure
Becoming a student-athlete at any university is no easy task to take on. Add on you’re attending not only one of the biggest schools in the Big Ten and the nation, but you’ll also be playing for Tom Izzo and one of the few Final Four favorites.
“(This year) will be one of the two or three deepest teams in (my) 23 years,” Izzo said. “It’s not like you have deep teams every year, especially this day in age. It will be one of the deeper teams I’ve had.”
For Jackson Jr., though the pressure isn’t phasing him. At least when it comes to speaking his mind.
“I won’t hide from anything,” Jackson Jr. said. “In a basketball sense, just making sure my teammates are feeling good, encouraging my teammates, just having a good time on the court, talking to them making sure their heads all good. Not necessarily getting on them, but more just encouraging them.”
The additions of Jackson Jr. and Tillman give the Spartans some much needed size in the paint, something MSU lacked last year.
But out of every player on Izzo’s squad, Izzo said Tillman “has been the biggest surprise in camp.”
“The reason I say that, is we thought he would be a very good player, but he’s just come on faster,” Izzo said.
Izzo said there’s times where you get highly recruited players that don’t live up to their expectations, but then there’s kids like Tillman.
“He’s a kid that wasn’t ranked off the charts, but is better than the ranking gave him,” Izzo said. “Those are what I call, ‘nice surprises.’”
Someone who was ranked off the charts coming however, is Jackson Jr.
“There’s a wealth of talent there,” Izzo said. “He’s a very, very young player, very gifted, very skilled, very long.”
Jackson Jr. comes from a family background of basketball, with his dad, Jaren Sr., playing college basketball at Georgetown and played 13 years in the NBA, picking up a NBA Championship with the San Antonio Spurs in 1999, while his mom,Terri, is the Director of Operations for the Women's National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA).
“He’s been raised really well,” Izzo said. “He’s a very unselfish kid.”
Someone who also came in as a freshman and was ranked off the charts talent wise, was Miles Bridges.
Bridges said he told Jackson Jr. to stay “level headed” and don’t pay attention to any of the noise outside of the team.
“As soon as you let outside distractions get to you, then you’ll play differently,” Bridges said.
Jackson Jr. comes in as the tallest player on the team, sitting 6-foot-11, with length that Izzo said “is creating some problems already” with teammates in practice.
“He doesn’t have some length like some guys, he has great length, but he also has the ability to shoot threes,” Izzo said. “Defensively, like all freshmen he’s got to improve, but one of the things he did this summer is went from 225 (pounds), to maybe 240 to 242 right now. That’s a decent amount of weight to gain.”
To be able to gain that weight, you need to have good eating habits, which is something Ward is helping both freshmen with, especially with Tillman who Ward has a “big brother, little brother relationship” with.
“I’m teaching him the little things on and off court that I know, that I’ve been through last year,” Ward said. “We have a great relationship. We clown around a lot.”
Tillman said Ward calls him little brother a lot, but he doesn’t quite get it.
“I’m only a year younger than him, so I’m like ‘Ah, well no,’” Tillman said. “I mean, he’s a great guy. People think (Ward) isn’t (a great guy) all the time, but he’s a really good guy off the court, and a very humble guy.”
Although Tillman said he does looks up to Ward and tries to mimic his game since both of them have similar skill sets and body types.
“I saw how he was performing in practice and stuff like that and saw how good of a player he was, and I was like ‘oh okay, well I want to know what he did to lose weight, I want to know how he makes his reads on offense,’” Tillman said.
Izzo said having now having Tillman in the mix to go along with Ward and a healthy Schilling, will give him “three hockey defensemen” to work with.
“Guys aren’t going to be afraid to bang some people and get back to the way we play,” Izzo said. “I think Xavier is going to fit in well there.”