Freshman year is a learning curve for everyone.
For Zeb Jackson, it means going up against a Final Four starter in practice.
Welcome to Ann Arbor. Now guard Isaiah Livers.
Jackson is, in many ways, the inheritor of a long tradition of Michigan combo guards. And as one of three ESPN top-100 recruits in his class, Jackson’s been hailed as having the potential to put his name up there with the likes of Zavier Simpson, his cousin and good friend, and Trey Burke, to whose game Jackson says he’s most similar to among Wolverines’ point guards.
But there’s a lot of practice between now and those developments, if they’re even in the cards. Jackson knows that, and he’s trying to soak up as much as he can, and do as much as he can, to make it happen.
Since arriving in Ann Arbor, Jackson says he’s been doing everything he can to learn from his more experienced teammates. He named both Mike Smith and Eli Brooks as key teachers at point guard, but Jackson says he’s just trying to learn from experience, and that includes everyone on the team – not just those at his position.
“Honestly, all of the older guys have been great, even not at my position,” Jackson said. “I’m trying to learn as much as I can when I’m on the side or watching. Eli does a lot of the little things correct, and I’ve learned a lot from them, and I keep asking questions.”
It’s an approach that he’s become more and more comfortable with in the last year. He played his first three years of high school basketball at Maumee Valley Country Day in Maumee, Ohio, before transferring to Montverde Academy in Florida for his senior season. With that transfer, Jackson went from being the key player to one of many on a very talented team.
It was a big mental adjustment, Jackson said. But it’s served him well so far at Michigan.
“That was definitely tough for me, just because the situation didn’t go as I’d planned it to,” Jackson said. “But we had a really good team, and every day was competitive, so in the long run, it helped me a lot. A lot of people probably couldn’t see it, but behind the scenes, it helped me a lot and really prepared me for this level of basketball. … The mental toughness and the speed of the game, the whole environment in general was more like a college environment.”
The key takeaway so far: Little things make the biggest difference. Playing at the collegiate level means going up against more talented guys — and, when you’re a freshman, more experienced guys — every day in practice. They know how to turn little mistakes into big plays.
It’s almost become a motto for Jackson, who repeated the phrase several times in Friday’s Zoom press conference. The little things add up.
“Especially since I’ve gotten here, I’ve been big on getting better in every little way I can,” Jackson said. “I know that here, a lot of little things matter — everything from just simply spreading the floor to cutting down the length of passes. There’s a lot of little things that I’ve learned and taken away from our practices already.”
But his teammates are already taking notice of Jackson’s dedication – and his talent.
“Zeb is an explosive athlete,” Livers said in a Zoom call on Friday. “You look at him, and you don’t think he can 360 windmill, or put the ball between his legs and 360. It’s just amazing how much of an athlete he is.
“He’s very skilled, and he actually talks a lot for a freshman. … He’s a natural leader, so he’s going to have a very bright future.”
Guarding Isaiah Livers is a tall enough task for the Big Ten’s most seasoned players, much less a freshman.
But so far, Zeb Jackson seems to be doing just fine.
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