Countdown to 2015–16: Q & A with A.J. Jacobson, North Dakota State’s stellar sophomore

Excellent as a redshirt-freshman, A.J. Jacobson will be counted upon even more in ‘15–16. (Photos courtesy of North Dakota State men’s basketball.)

A.J. Jacobson had a lot to live up to, when he got to North Dakota State. His mom, Pat, is a member of the school’s athletic Hall of Fame, in honor of her glittering career for the Bison’s women’s basketball team. She is the program’s second all-time leading scorer, took four trips to the NCAA tournament, and won a conference MVP award.

A.J.’s shown his own knack for the game. As a high school senior, he was named North Dakota’s Gatorade — and Powerade — Player of the Year. He finished his prep career with 2,002 points.

After redshirting in ‘13–14, Jacobson became a critical piece for a Bison bunch that put a serious scare into Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament Round of 64. His all-purpose production was shown in his season averages of 32.8 minutes, 11.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.8 assists. His 54 threes, converted at a 4o% clip, were second on the team. For good measure, he earned one of the five spots on the Summit League’s all-academic team. (He is majoring in biological sciences.)

As was the case heading into ‘14–15, when NDSU replaced three starters (including Taylor Braun, the ‘13–14 Summit League Player of the Year), and introduced six newcomers, there is changeover on tap this fall. Lawrence Alexander, one of the country’s best scorers and an AP Honorable Mention All-American as as senior, has graduated.

Few thought the Bison would make a repeat appearance in the NCAA tournament last March. They did, after winning 23 games. Safe to say, they’ll be in the conversation when the next postseason rolls around.

Jacobson will have a lot to say about that. On Monday morning, he took time to talk with Alley Whoops.

Alley Whoops: You’ve said that this coaching staff preaches taking shots “you’re good at.” For you, what would those be?

A.J. Jacobson: Probably inside-out threes, stuff like that. Attacking on a close-out. If I catch a skip pass, and a defender closes out, I can attack, and hit a pull-up off one or two dribbles. I think that’s one of the parts of the games that’s really developed since I’ve gotten here.

I’ve always kind of had it, but I worked really hard at it during my redshirt year, and the coaching staff has really helped me develop.

AW: This program has excelled in recent seasons at replacing production. Last season, Lawrence Alexander stepped up after Taylor Braun graduated. In what ways will this ‘15–16 team replace LA’s contributions?

AJJ: We’ve been working hard this offseason to improve our scoring as a team. Hopefully this year, we’ll be a bit more balanced, and we can step in and play really well. Paul Miller, Carlin Dupree, and the incoming freshmen can really help with production. It can be a whole team thing.

That’s one of our big mottos: “Next guy in.” If someone gets hurt, or leaves, the next guy steps up. We prepare for that here. It’s something we need to get used to, and we’re ready for it this season.

AW: How much did that redshirt year help you?

AJJ: Oh, you bet. You get a sense of the work ethic, practice, and mentality needed in college. The jump from high school is so drastic. Not a lot of kids are super ready for it, but in many schools, they’re thrown into the fire anyway.

Here, it helps to take a year to increase your agility, strength, and speed. That really helps us get ready to be ready to contribute. Personally, it really helped me going against Taylor Braun in practice. TrayVonn Wright, Marshall Bjorklund — all those seniors really guided me, in my journey.

They showed me that you treat everyone equal here. Everyone is an NDSU player, regardless of age. An incoming freshman worked just as hard as us returning players to get here.

AW: Growth is a frequent theme in any season, but to compare the start of ‘14–15, with those big losses to Texas and Iowa, and the close —winning the conference tournament and putting a big scare into Gonzaga — did you reflect on that this spring?

AJJ: It’s really weird to think about. Getting blown out by Texas and Iowa, everyone kind of turned us off then. “Well, they don’t stand a chance, they couldn’t compete, might as well call the season a rebuild, and aim for next year.”

It was actually really nice. It put a chip on our shoulder to work hard, get after it and we set a goal to prove people wrong. We worked hard.

AW: You’re just back from a team trip to the Bahamas. What were some highlights?

AJJ: A lot of team bonding. Doing stuff together brought us closer, and made us more close-knit. There were some snorkeling trips, and we played pretty good basketball.

AW: Ten official practices are one of the biggest perks that come with an overseas trip. How much will those help, this season?

AJJ: We’re young again. We’ve got four incoming freshmen, and an incoming sophomore that was a JuCo. Then there’s five sophomores, a junior, and two seniors on the roster.

So, it really helps to get some stuff in early, in practice. Our offense is set-based, and we got some transition sets in early. It gives us a head start. We won’t have to mess around with that stuff in the early parts of the season. Instead, we can hop right in and get after it.

AW: A parallel is often drawn between you and your mom, for hoops. But you’re academic all-conference, too. Do mom and dad both contribute to the smarts?

AJJ: My dad is a family practice doctor at the VA here in Fargo, N.D. My mom is no slouch, either, academically. For me, it’s more a work ethic that they instilled in the classroom. That helps me succeed on the court, too. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

AW: You were a pretty good soccer player back in the day. What was your position?

AJJ: I played stopper, or defensive center mid. I was two-time all state, as a junior and senior in high school. It was a good time, but basketball is where I’m supposed to be at.

I still watch soccer a little bit. When I’m home, I go to games at my high school. That’s about the extent of my following the sport these days.

AW: You mentioned the impact of the senior class during your redshirt season. What were some of the lessons you took from them?

AJJ: Resolve. Those guys never quit, and it really inspired me. No matter the score or situation, they played their hardest, and left it all out there. That really inspired me, and it really showed me the Bison Way.

They played tough games, and won tough games. (NDSU won 26 games in ‘13–14.) They were winners, and I learned how to win. Some people don’t know how to get it done, so it was great to learn from leaders that did. That was something i really took away from that year.

AW: What do you see as the greatest strengths of this ‘15–16 team?

AJJ: I think our ability to learn, and get better. Even with these 10 practices, there’s been a drastic improvement, with taking care of the ball, and playing with more patience and resolve.

We’re not the most exciting on offense, but we bore our opponents, and then we get a good-looking shot. We’re going to keep getting better, this season.

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