The Next Level

David Kern

From offense to defense, home game to away game, pregame to postgame, University of Minnesota guard Sam Jacobson is expressionless and inscrutable. Fans and writers who follow Jacobson and the Gophers wonder whether his stony, sometimes spacey demeanor betrays a lack of intelligence or, worse yet, passion within the team's key player. In turn, NBA scouts debate the senior swingman's intensity on both ends of the court.

Jacobson knows he could silence the skeptics by pumping his fist or slapping the floor before getting set on D. But unless it comes naturally, he sees no reason to shuck and jive. "People have always paid a lot of attention to my emotions," he says. "But during a game I'm working so hard to stay focused I don't have time for celebrations or talking trash."

This uncharacteristically thoughtful self-analysis notwithstanding, there's an undeniable link between Jacobson's stage presence and the quality of his play. The erstwhile team leader, Jacobson was a wallflower on the court during the Gophers' spotty, uninspired preseason, only to come to life in the Big Ten opener against Purdue with a scrappy, nothing-to-lose defensive effort, which led to one of the most spectacular plays of this college-basketball season. Sealing a steal at the other end of the court, Jacobson leaped from the free-throw line, then seemed to elevate again in midair before delivering a thundering, one-handed throw-down. Emerging from a crowd of slack-jawed opponents, he lifted his arms to the heavens and let out a wail. More shocked by Jacobson's emotional reaction than the athletic slam, the Gopher bench erupted and the Williams Arena crowd went berserk. Not coincidentally, Jacobson and his teammates played the most inspired 40 minutes of their losing season, ultimately falling to the nationally ranked Boilermakers by a mere four points.

In last week's ugly home game against the Wisconsin Badgers, Gopher fans were again reminded of what a motivated Jacobson can do. The Badgers stuck freshman guard Mike Kelley on Jacobson during the first half for the sole purpose of pestering and fouling him out of his offensive rhythm. Initially, Jacobson was frustrated, looking to the refs to blow their whistles and, in rare form, shaking his head in disgust when the calls didn't come. Then he looked over to Coach Haskins for compassion. He didn't get any. "Sam has to learn to play through that," Haskins said after the game. "He's a big boy."

Sure enough, Jacobson eventually started getting even by getting mad. He pushed back with superior size and strength against Kelley, scoring on a variety of drives and long-range jumpers that led to 12 first-half points and an eventual 58-48 Gopher victory. Afterward, Jacobson tried to minimize his emotional response by claiming he always is more effective against a straight man-to-man such as the one Wisconsin deployed with Kelley. But it's worth noting that Jacobson was less productive against other defenders, who, zone or no zone, were giving him better looks at the basket. As with the Purdue game, Jacobson let himself get swept up in the moment and soared.

Minnesota Timberwolves player personnel director Rob Babcock, who was at the Wisconsin game, sympathizes with Jacobson's plight as the best player on a bad team. "It's tough because they [the Gophers] need him to do a lot this season, and so he ends up taking some bad shots and not playing as naturally or aggressively as he otherwise might. But, while there's significant room for improvement, I see him getting a little more assertive overall," Babcock says.

As part of a weak senior class, Jacobson is being touted as a potential first-round draft choice--read recent raves in the local press and you'd think the guy already had a contract. Scouts from a number of NBA teams--including the Pistons, Sonics, and Jazz--have come to see for themselves whether he can be a pro shooting guard, a position that demands quick feet on defense and the ability to move the ball up court. The evaluation will continue in April at the Nike Desert Classic, a week-long camp in Phoenix, where the nation's top players are invited to perform for NBA coaches by NBA rules in NBA offenses and defenses. Marty Blake, director of the NBA's scouting services, says only the "crème de la crème" are invited to the Classic. Still, like most of the 1998 college class, there is no consensus on how attractive a prospect Jacobson will be at the end of the year.

In the plus column, Jacobson has done a much better job this year of creating offensive opportunities off the dribble, slashing through defenders, taking shots, and grabbing rebounds in the paint. On defense, he's mastered the regimented man-to-man defensive schemes that Babcock says are a staple of life in the pros. Quick guards can still get around Jacobson in a half-court set, but his improved footwork has them working harder and even pulling up for jump shots before reaching the hoop.

The downside involves some significant fundamentals, beginning with Jacobson's stamina. Although Gopher fans have spent the last three years grousing about his lack of minutes, Haskins usually pulls him because of fatigue, a longstanding problem that could give NBA executives second thoughts about drafting him in the first round. Attitude is another issue. Jacobson will pick up his defense when his offense is ticking. But when the shots aren't falling, his passion gives way to pouting and his feet are less active from corner to corner.

What's most worrisome is that while Jacobson had learned to create more shots for himself early in the Big Ten schedule, the easy, open set shots haven't been falling. It's as if he needs a Kelley in his face, forcing a challenge. Babcock believes this is because Jacobson is the only go-to guy on a struggling team: Last summer, when Jacobson competed in Australia with the Under 22 National Team, he was one of the top perimeter shooters because he didn't have to put the ball on the floor or worry about scoring every time down the court. Still, the pressure of being the go-to guy in a mediocre Big Ten will be replaced by the pressure of tough, fast defenders in a dog-eat-dog NBA, where weaknesses are consumed one skill at a time. "If you can't knock down the open shot, it's pretty tough to create off the dribble, because the D will play off you and hinder your ability to penetrate," Babcock says. "For a classic 2 position, you have to have the ability to do both."

And whether he chooses to acknowledge it or not, passion and the competitive will to win also remain question marks with Jacobson. He says that intensity is there, that if the scouts and fans look at his entire game instead of paying attention to facial expressions or mood swings, they'll find a player ready for the next level. "I hope they realize I've dedicated my life to being a better player," he says. "Hopefully, they'll look at my whole game, my all-around effort. Too many NBA scouts, I think, get too impressed or react to just one element of the game."

But what Jacobson needs to recognize is that those scouts who can put him in an NBA uniform are looking for Purdue- and Wisconsin-style performances night after night. They know he has the raw, athletic talent. They know he can see the floor and light up the basket. What they don't know is if he can scrap. To convince them, Jacobson must convince himself.

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