Easy to evaluate and even easier to admire, Justin Jackson has been a grassroots constant for nearly four years. He first made a name as a 6-4 rising freshman out of Texas, where he competed with the Houston Hoops 16-under squad. He kept growing and continued pushing himself competitively.
He performed for the Hoops' 17-under edition in 2011, proving that he could maintain pace against older and much stronger opponents. Early that year he also made an unofficial visit to North Carolina, which identified him early and maintained constant pursuit.
Jackson also earned an invitation to play for USA Basketball and received early admission to the LeBron James Skills Academy. All that said, then, his high-major status within the class congealed quickly and never became threatened at any point.
He didn't always dominate at the 17-under level — in fact, he rarely dominated — but he typically did exert a presence. And he became a force within his home school league, using that as a springboard by which he'd fashion his game into higher scoring efforts as he matured.
He also embarked upon a series of visits during his junior year, including to Ohio State and Texas.
The 2012 summer proved to be a critical one. At the EYBL Finals/Peach Jam, he stepped up to become one of the event's most impressive performers despite being a full year younger than most other participants. That summer enabled him to draw offers from UNC and Arizona, among others.
He visited Chapel Hill officially this past March and committed shortly thereafter. That alleviated any pressure as he entered the spring and summer, and the past few months have featured Jackson playing the best basketball of his career. His improvement had been gradual, but somewhere between 2012 and early 2013 he gained a hefty dose of confidence and polish along with improved quickness.
Jackson's game illustrates the potency of simplicity. He's economical, relatively sizzle-free and tends to play in a straight line. Those qualities may not scream superstar, but within the parameters of his own style and talent, he has become a magnificent all-around contributor.
He does his best work in no-man's land, the area of the court 6-13 feet from the basket. Increasingly fewer players operate comfortably within that space, but Jackson actually has tailored his game to maximize his touches in those areas.
Utilizing a lightning-quick release, Jackson darts forward either off the dribble or off the catch and lofts in short jump shots. He can halt his momentum even moving at fullspeed to remain in control for very accurate results. He intelligently passes up open shots in order to work for better ones, and his preferred arsenal tends to catch defenses by surprise.
He sets up screens well and thrives when surrounded by more dominant handlers, yet he also boasts a sure dribble himself and possesses enough quickness to create his own shot on occasion.
Jackson also shoots threes at a respectable percentage. He previously relied more heavily on distance jumpers, but now he takes them judiciously and rarely forces a bad one.
When he's unable to get shots while moving toward the rim, he loves to employ high post ups against smaller wings. He typically sets up at 8-10 feet, and from there he patiently dribbles his way down another foot or two and launches accurate turnaround jumpers.
Meanwhile, he's a solid passer both in halfcourt and running the break, and he's an outstanding third ballhandler. At 6-7, that particularl quality becomes even more valuable because he's tall enough to pass over most pressure-applying wings.
His defense gets overlooked due to his offensive proficiency, but I believe Jackson will become at least adequate on that end of the court as well. He uses his long arms and a wide stance to contain dribble penetration, and his lateral quickness and instincts are above-average. He also makes timely blocks from behind as a helper.
Jackson's intangibles also warrant mention. His skills lend themselves to high efficiency, but so does his attitude. He holds the talent to pursue his own opportunities at the expense of his teammates, but he simply isn't hard-wired to compete that way. He shares the ball enthusiastically and participates in the game's minutia more than most star players.
Clearly, Jackson must get stronger. He's naturally narrow through his shoulders, though, so he's unlikely ever to become a power wing. For that reason some opponents can overwhelm him physically, a problem that becomes aggravated when officials call looser games.
As mentioned, he's also not an elite athlete. Although more than capable physically in most respects, Jackson doesn't dominate as much as he picks his spots. He's more of a consistent, steady-as-she-goes performer rather than a dynamic, bullying force.
He most likely will be fine in the college game due to the way it's structured, but in the NBA he'll be tasked with creating for himself, if possible, and that's when he must prove he can overcome a thin and narrow physique.
Strength concerns a given, Jackson still should push to start as a freshman. His height, skill level and intangibles will make him difficult to exclude from the lineup. Depending upon how well he's able to bury threes and create his own shot, Jackson likely won't need more than a year or two of college before he's ready to become an NBA draft pick.
How he fares at that juncture remains to be seen, but his improvement rate and understanding of his own talent suggest a very promising outcome.