By LARRY LAGE, AP Sports Writer
Jaren Jackson, the Big Ten defensive player of the year as a freshman for Michigan State, is leaving early for the NBA.
“Spartans, this was not an automatic decision,” he tweeted Monday. “And honestly, thank you for making it one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to think about. While playing in the NBA was always my dream and desire, I did not know the opportunity would present itself in quite this way. I’m ready to live my dreams and I cannot pass it up.”
Jackson was also the Big Ten freshman of the year, joining former Ohio State star Greg Oden as the only players in conference history to pull off the feat. Coach Tom Izzo expected Jackson to be a one-and-done player.
“It was a difficult decision for him, which is kind of neat,” Izzo told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “He made the right decision, no doubt because he’s just going to be too high of a pick. The more I’m hearing, he could go three or four (overall) and the ceiling seems to be five.”
The 6-foot-11, 242-pound Jackson blocked 106 shots, a single-season record for a Spartan, and swatted a Big Ten-best 3.03 shots per game. The forward averaged 10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and made nearly 40 percent of the 96 3-pointers he attempted. His father, Jaren, played for the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs and had a 431-game career with many teams. His mother, Terri, is the director of operations for the Women’s National Basketball Players Association.
Jackson was a key player for a team that won 30 games and the Big Ten title in the regular season. He was very productive despite being limited to an average of 22 minutes a game.
Foul trouble usually kept him on the bench, but that was not the case when the third-seeded Spartans lost to 11th-seeded Syracuse 55-53 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Jackson was 0 for 4 with two points and three fouls in 15 minutes, playing fewer minutes than reserves Ben Carter and Xavier Tillman.
Michigan State star Miles Bridges has already declared for the draft and hired an agent. Nick Ward is submitting his name for consideration but doesn’t plan to sign with an agent while exploring his options.
“If Nick (Ward) comes back, we could be good because Nick can score and we’ll have really good guards,” Izzo said.
If Ward returns, he will lead a team with fellow juniors Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford along with seniors Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins. Tillman worked his way into the lineup as a freshman and Kyle Ahrens is expected to return as a redshirt junior. The Spartans signed several standouts last fall, including point guard Foster Loyer, Michigan’s Mr. Basketball, 6-10 forward Marcus Bingham Jr., 6-7 forward Gabe Brown and 6-8 forward Thomas Kithier.
“We’ll need a freshman or two to really step up, but nothing like two years ago when Miles and Nick were freshmen,” Izzo said before looking at this year’s Final Four, which included Villanova, Kansas, Loyola-Chicago and rival Michigan. “Villanova has mastered the ability to get old and stay old. If you look
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