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Michigan State Men’s Basketball: Jaxon Kohler is something completely different for the Spartans

Kohler may be the most functionally-skilled offensive post-player that Tom Izzo has recruited since Paul Davis.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Jaxon Kohler committed to Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans men’s basketball program on Sept. 19, as Zach Manning noted in his announcement piece. This late-developing and lightning fast recruitment is a fascinating development for Izzo as he builds his 2022 class and begins to look ahead to 2023.

Kohler, listed as a four-star power forward (but will likely play center at MSU), has a relationship with fellow Michigan State priority target Braelon Green (they have been teammates for the last year at Southern California Academy), is a big time offensive talent in his own right, and fills a major need on the roster for a big man with offensive punch to play alongside the workman-like and defensive minded Julius Marble and Mady Sissoko, who should both be on the roster for Kohler’s freshman season.

This recruitment moved quickly from the early scouting looks over the summer, to Kohler’s breakout performance at the Pangos Invitational, which cemented Izzo’s and the staff’s interest in this unique player and engaging young man. An official visit to East Lansing over the basketball team’s alumni reunion weekend ultimately helped the Spartans secure Kohler’s commitment over Iowa, Nebraska, USC and Oklahoma, among others.

What makes Jaxon Kohler special:

At 6-feet-9-inches tall, and roughly 250 pounds, Kohler already has natural size as a post player and may not be fully done growing yet. While his size does work to his advantage, or, rather, while Kohler works his size to his advantage, he is a guy who will benefit a TON from the Michigan State strength and conditioning program. His true playing weight should probably be around 235-240 pounds, not too much of a difference from his current listed weight, but a drop that will require him to reshape his body, develop his upper-body strength and become a stronger guy in his legs.

Physical development needs aside, Kohler is a terrific young basketball player. He has a litany of nicknames that should inspire dreams of greatness: “Mr. footwork,” “The Big Footwork” and “Baby Jokic” to name a few. Watching Kohler’s game is like watching an instructional video taught by Hakeem Olajuwon on how to play basketball in the post. And, in fact, Kohler lists Olajuwon along with Nikola Jokic as some of the players he purposefully has modeled his game after. It shows. Kohler has a terrific sense of balance, a terrific ability to understand what his body is doing in space, and what the possibilities of movement for his feet include. He utilizes his pivot and has moves, counters, drop-steps, up-and-unders, spins, hard-fakes, hooks, rolls, power, finesse and shooting touch out to near the college three-point line.

Kohler is, simply, the most functionally-skilled offensive post-player that Tom Izzo has recruited since Paul Davis. While Goran Suton, Derrick Nix, Nick Ward, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Xavier Tillman all had great careers on the offensive end in Green and White, Kohler simply comes in much further along in the development of his offensive game.

Where Suton took a couple of years to develop and was at his best as a face-up shooting big, Kohler has a superior interior scoring game and footwork. Where Nix may have had a similar level of savvy and trickery around the paint, Kohler is further along in his physical development and should not take as many years as Nix did to sort out his physique. Where Ward over-powered and scrapped his way to hooks and paint points without ever knowing that he was allowed to pass the ball, Kohler intentionally models his post-passing game off of Jokic. Where Jackson only gave the Spartans one awesome season because of his tantalizing length and NBA fit, Kohler will likely spend four glorious years tormenting the Big Ten and playing a more technical offensive post-game. And, finally, where Tillman dominated defensively, Kohler will dominate on offense.

Kohler currently ranks at No. 67 overall in the 2022 class in the 247Sports Composite rankings because of his offensive ability, not because he is a defensive dynamo. But while he has a considerable amount of improvement to make on defense, MSU fans should take great heart in the knowledge that Kohler really does seem to understand what he should do on defense, even if he is currently inconsistently able to execute his rotations and contests due to his needed physical evolution.

Furthermore, Kohler is a worker. He prides himself on always being on, always pushing, always going hard. And that is essential. A supremely talented offensive player with the defensive IQ and understanding, and a high motor, who just needs some physical and defensive polishing is a heck of a prospect. Take a look at some of these highlights from Kohler and note his footwork, his scoring touch, his work-rate and his competitiveness.

Player comparisons:

I have mentioned a number of Michigan State bigs that have similarities to Kohler, but none of them really align with his game in any perfect way. If we were to create a hybrid player, Kohler might best be described as a mix between Nix’s and Ward’s low-post scoring skill, Tillman’s passing, and Suton’s shooting touch, and understanding of spacing and offensive flow.

Another guy to consider if Kohler really can get at home in the weight room and grows a bit more: Paul Davis. Davis’ career gets overlooked somewhat, but his years in East Lansing were glorious — he could score, move, pass it a bit and became a good defender and rebounder. Kohler, like Davis, has terrific footwork, and a knack for scoring in the paint.

Here are Kohler’s high lights from the Pangos championship game, you may feel yourself transported back to a night in 2005 or 2006 when Davis was putting Big Ten post defenders into the torture chamber for 40 minutes.

Depth chart update and implications:

Kohler’s fit is fascinating— Izzo has leaned toward defensive oriented post-players, generally, for some time now, but every so often he finds a scoring big that helps balance the floor for his offenses and provides an anchor to his half-court sets. Kohler has the potential to provide the same kind of dribble-hand-off passing acumen that we saw from Tillman for three years, while also providing the low-post and face-up offense that Izzo got from Jackson Jr., Ward and Nix, in their own ways — with Joey Hauser providing some glimpses of similar abilities last year.

Furthermore, if Kohler’s shooting proves to be every bit as real as it appears, then Izzo will have the chance to play him at the forward in bigger lineups, or to play with four or five shooters on the court at any time, which he has not really implemented with consistency since Adreian Payne graduated. With Kohler in the fold, the team is in great shape in the post for the next two years, at least. For now, I am assuming that Max Christie will return for a second season, which I am increasingly convinced should be my assumption, even if my guy tells me he will leave after this season. In the world where Christie does return, adding Kohler shores up the center spot perfectly, and just leaves a need for a forward to back-up Malik Hall.

Current depth-chart projection for 2022-2023:

1 - Tyson Walker (sr.), AJ Hoggard (jr.)
2 - Jaden Akins (so.), Tre Holloman (fr.)
3 - Max Christie (so.), Pierre Brooks II (so.)
4 - Malik Hall (sr.)
5 - Mady Sissoko (jr.), Julius Marble (sr.), Jaxon Kohler (fr.)

Assuming the entire back-court stays as I project it (with no early departures or transfers), then this six-man group in the back-court and on the wings will prove to be one of the most talented position groups in the nation.

Christie and Akins are future NBA players, and Walker and Hoggard should be a dynamic one-two punch at the point guard position as upperclassmen. Having Holloman and Brooks as multi-positional, multi-talented fifth and sixth options in those spots should be illegal.

In the front-court, Hall — who was recently voted a team captain, along with Gabe Brown, for the 2021-2022 season — should already be starting or closing games by the end of this season and should, as a senior, be pushing for some sort of all-league honors and bolstering his professional resume with an all-around game and multi-positional, multi-skilled acumen that should connect the entire team.

At center, Kohler would have the luxury of playing a smaller role while he adjusts to the college game and begins to remake his body. Sissoko and Marble as upperclassmen taking the bulk of minutes at the center should still allow Kohler room to demonstrate his abilities, and Izzo will likely play both Kohler and Marble minutes at the forward in bigger lineups if he believes they can be mobile enough to defend the position.

The big “hole” remains, however, at the forward spot behind Hall. Though Brooks and even Christie may play that position in some small-ball lineups, Izzo clearly agrees that this is a position of need as he has turned all of his recruiting attention toward the one player I hoped he would all along.

Recruiting update: The Final Target for 2022

Ty Rodgers (6-foot-6-inch forward from Michigan) and Tom Izzo seemed destined to pass each other like ships in the night for much of the past two years, despite what I view as an obvious and perfect skill-personality-need-and-position fit. Rodgers’ defense remains near the top of the class, and his ability to make glue-plays, get important rebounds, steals and blocks, and to finish in traffic, are what they are. His game reminds of Branden Dawson —although Rodgers is not quite as strong or bouncy, his length, toughness, grit and nose for the ball are deeply evocative of Dawson. He also, like Dawson, will not enter the college game with jump-shooting near the top of his list of skills; though I do believe that Rodgers’ jump-shooting ceiling is far higher than Dawson’s ever was.

Rodgers’ recruitment has been a challenge and it seemed that he and Izzo were sufficiently annoyed at each other for not wanting the other party enough that they might never see eye-to-eye. However, better late than never, in the last month Rodgers and Izzo have gotten together four times —Sept. 9, Sept. 10, Sept. 13 and Sept. 22 — either at Rodgers’ house, on campus or at an event. In fact, in a promising development, Rodgers also has an official visit coming up this weekend in East Lansing on Oct. 2.

If Rodgers joins the class, then the 2022-2023 season’s depth chart should be more or less set, and looking at something like a top-10 or so ranking in the preseason.

Looking ahead, again: 2023 high school class updates

Braelon Green and Jeremy Fears visited campus this past weekend for the Nebraska game, with Green noting how much he enjoyed the visit. When Green went out to the West Coast to finish his high school career, I feared that Izzo’s hopes at landing him left as well, but Izzo’s pursuit has not wavered, and their relationship is clearly quite strong. Having Kohler on the team and able to reach out to Green and help recruit him will only help things for Izzo as Green is one of the real mega-talents that I have seen in the 2023 class thus far.

With Christie, Walker, and possibly Akins all leaving after next season, Izzo will need to reload on the wing and in the back-court and Green, along with Cam Christie appear to be his two biggest foci.