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Jaren Jackson Jr. toughens up his game at Michigan State

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Jackson Jr. dunks it after offensive rebound (0:17)

Michigan State comes up with the offensive rebound and Cassius Winston finds Jaren Jackson Jr. down low for the dunk. (0:17)

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Jaren Jackson Jr. is ready with an excuse.

Nick Ward had just told the story of Jackson's first practice at Michigan State, how Ward went at the freshman big man with a couple of elbows, testing him early.

"I wanted to see how tough he is," Ward told ESPN.

Jackson admits Ward even blocked his first shot that day -- but there's a few reasons for it. One, it was his first practice. Two, he had been driving for 10 hours before the practice, then he pulled up at the facility and went to practice.

"These dudes had been practicing for a minute," Jackson said. "Nick got here, blocked my shot. He was hype."

Joking and bragging rights aside, that play woke up Jackson. College wasn't going to be like high school.

"It humbled me real quick," he said.

And the battle with Ward?

"I go at him every day," Jackson said.

A couple of years ago, Jackson might not have been as willing to go back at a 245-pound strongman like Ward. In the summer of 2016, at the Nike Academy, Jackson weighed in at 220 pounds. He had the length and the size, but there were questions about how physical he could be, whether he could bang in the post for 40 minutes against the more rough-and-tumble players in college basketball. Jackson averaged 6.3 rebounds on the Nike EYBL circuit that summer.

Jackson's father knows a thing or two about toughness. Jaren Jackson Sr. played under John Thompson at Georgetown in the late 1980s, then he won an NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs in 1999.

The elder Jackson said the knocks on his son for a lack of toughness midway through his high school career were just a generalization about players with his frame.

"It's typical of tall, slim, young guys," Jackson's father explained. "The first thing you say is, wait until he gets bigger, stronger. Get in the gym, lift weights. We never fell for that. He's always played with some intensity, plays hard, plays defense, dove on the floor. He was always into that. It was a matter of using his frame to his advantage."

Things began to change at La Lumiere School (Indiana), where Jackson transferred for his senior year of high school after spending the previous couple of seasons at Park Tudor High School (Indiana). Former La Lumiere head coach Shane Heirman, now an assistant coach at DePaul, was well-known for running some of the most intense practices in high school basketball and getting players in shape -- both in terms of conditioning and in the weight room.

Moreover, there was a regimented schedule for the players to follow. They lifted weights at 5 a.m. every day, then went to class and practiced after school.

"His willingness to receive coaching and want to be coached and just learn, it was at the highest level of anyone I had coached," Heirman said. "If there was a tentativeness to him, it was quickly drowned out by his enthusiasm to learn. I think he found the value of consistently playing with a motor and playing with the mentality to attack people. He's always had the tools and athleticism. When the mentality clicked in, it was like, uh-oh."

In the span of a few months, Jackson filled out to around 235 or 240 pounds (he's now listed at 242) and improved his inside production across the board. He went from averaging 7.8 rebounds at Park Tudor to grabbing 10-plus per game at La Lumiere, while playing against better competition and helping lead La Lumiere to a national championship.

Once he got to Michigan State, he began working every day against perhaps the deepest frontcourt in the country. There's Ward, Kenny Goins, Xavier Tillman -- and graduate student Ben Carter and redshirt senior Gavin Schilling, two players who are older than a lot of NBA players, as Jackson's father pointed out.

Early in his college career, Jackson's ability to defend and rebound has been his calling card. He opened his career with 13 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks against North Florida and followed it up with 19 points, seven rebounds and three blocks against Duke. He has had a few down games offensively lately but has made an impact at the other end. Jackson helped hold North Carolina's Luke Maye to eight points on 3 for 13 shooting, then limited Notre Dame's Bonzie Colson in the first half, blocking three shots and holding him scoreless for the first 12 minutes.

"I know there's a long way to go, and I definitely have to get a lot better as a player for our team to be successful right now."

Jaren Jackson Jr.

"Jackson's length really bothered Bonzie early," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "He's even longer than I remember. That length is bothersome."

Jackson offered his own assessment.

"That used to be the knock on me, that I couldn't guard players," Jackson said. "Not rim protecting, but sliding your feet. I surprise myself sometimes how well I can get to certain things. I have good timing with the blocks and stuff, but being able to wall up and stay down and playing defense, that's been something I've been working on."

NBA teams have noticed.

There seems to be a clear top five for the 2018 NBA draft. In some order, it's Duke's Marvin Bagley III, Missouri's Michael Porter Jr., Arizona's Deandre Ayton, Texas' Mohamed Bamba and Slovenia native Luka Doncic, who plays for Real Madrid in Spain.

Among guys in the next tier, though, Jackson has as good a case as anyone to be drafted in the top 10.

"He's right there," one NBA executive said. "I love his defensive potential; he can switch and rim protect. A 6-11 that can defend and make [3s]."

The next step for Jackson is to be more consistent on the offensive end and to stay on the floor. What made Jackson so intriguing at the high school level was his ability to step out and consistently make shots from the perimeter. He shot 41.6 percent on the AAU circuit, but that number has dipped to 32 percent so far in college. Take out the 3 for 5 performance against Duke and he's only 5-for-20 on the season.

He also has been mired in foul trouble. He fouled out after 14 minutes against Stony Brook. He has picked up at least four fouls in three other games.

"We gotta keep Jaren Jackson in the game," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said after a late November win over Notre Dame. "His length and athletic ability. He's too valuable. He helps all those other players when he's in the game."

After the victory against the Fighting Irish, the plaudits for Jackson were the talk of the postgame news conference.

"He was almost one of the stars of the game," Izzo said.

Jackson's stat line that night? Five points, three rebounds and three blocks in 14 minutes.

Statistically, it was one of Jackson's worst games of the season. But the flashes he showed during his short time showed Izzo and everyone else that the Spartans are significantly better when Jackson is on the court -- and why NBA teams in the lottery are interested in him.

But he's nowhere near a finished product yet, and he knows that.

"I haven't even gotten to my expectation, even a little bit," Jackson said. "I know there's a long way to go, and I definitely have to get a lot better as a player for our team to be successful right now."

And this time, Jackson isn't using excuses.