Michigan State freshman Jaxon Kohler makes his defense

HOLT — Jaxon Kohler knows Michigan State fans’ concerns about him as he enters his first season with the Spartans: that he will struggle to play defensively as a Big Ten center.

And he isn’t shy about addressing those concerns when asked about them.

“I want to take this opportunity now to tell everyone, everyone had a lot of doubts whether I can keep the position or not,” Kohler said in June after a Moneyball Pro-Am game at Holt High School.

“I want to tell everyone that I’ve been busting my ass every day for three or four months to make sure I can hold this position, because I know I’ll have to hold this position, and I’m not the no one to let people down like that.

That statement will appease some worried Michigan State fans who have high hopes for Kohler in his freshman year at Michigan State.

Kohler’s role has grown throughout an offseason that saw the Spartans lose more than expected at center position.

Spartans eldest Marcus Bingham Jr. opted to switch to professional basketball instead of pursuing a fifth year of eligibility shortly after the season. While this decision was not unexpected, the one that followed was this: Julius Marble II entered the transfer portal and signed with Texas A&M to be closer to his family in Dallas.

Those two moves (and Michigan State’s lack of interest in adding a center from the transfer gate) left the Spartans with only one returning center: Mady Sissoko, who averaged less than five minutes. per game last year as a sophomore. Power forward Joey Hauser also has the ability to play center at times.

Regardless of whether Sissoko or Kohler enters the 2022-23 season as a starter, Kohler is expected to play as big a role as any Michigan State freshman center since Nick Ward in 2016.

“I don’t see it as pressure,” Kohler said. “I focus on my game. I focus on everything that happens on the basketball court. The pressure and all that is just on the pitch. I go there, I play, I show them what I have.

To prepare for the role, Kohler said he worked to improve his defense by protecting smaller, faster players in practices. He hopes this will help him switch ball screens when needed and defend against guards.

“I’ve been working constantly to get faster feet, to make sure I can keep guards up,” Kohler said.

On the other side of the court, there are far fewer worries. Kohler has always been noted for his footwork and variety of low post moves. He averaged more than 20 points per game for the Southern California Academy as a senior and turned heads by dropping 20 points and grabbing six rebounds in the Iverson Classic game in May.

This production was on display on the opening night of the Moneyball Pro-Am last month at Holt High School, when Kohler recorded a pullback on his first possession and then scored almost every time he touched the ball during the rest of the first half his that of the team. That included showing off some of those post moves that helped him become a four-star rookie, as well as making a few plays in traffic.

He also hit a pair from 15 feet down the baseline, showing off the facet of his offensive game he’s worked on the most recently: range. Kohler said he hopes to become a player who can hit 3-point pick-and-pops and face-up jumpers to become more than just a return-to-the-basket player.

“I feel like I have a really good lineup,” Kohler said.

And perhaps just as importantly, on one play, Kohler quickly recognized a double team and quickly passed out to an open shooter on the perimeter.

The verdict on his defensive game will have to wait. But Kohler is confident that when fans see what he can do, they’ll be impressed.

“I have confidence in myself that I can do it, and you’re going to have to see,” Kohler said.

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