Summer is coming for Justin Jackson, and with it a singular focus. Getting better.
Next week, Jackson is returning to his home in Tomball, Texas rather than attend UNC's first summer session. It’s a chance, his parents say, to regroup, recharge and rebuild.
“He has to get stronger,” said his mother, Sharon Jackson. “The speed and physicality in high school is kind of hit or miss. In college, it’s continuous. Getting bigger and getting stronger, that’s what we’re going to be focusing on.”
“He’s coming home to work,” added his father, Lloyd Jackson.
With the approval of Roy Williams and strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian, the family hired a strength coach to work with Justin Jackson while he’s at home. He’ll also continue his individual skills sessions with basketball legend John Lucas.
“This has been our plan for a while,” Sharon Jackson explained. “The strength coach will be working alongside Jonas and they’ll stay in contact, making sure he is progressing towards the expectations Jonas has."
“As his parents,” she continued, “we’re going to be focusing on his caloric intake and nutrition. Our goal is for him to put on about 10 pounds. For that four- or five-week period his schedule is going to be weight training and skill work.”
Justin Jackson will be back in Chapel Hill for the start of the second summer session on June 22. It’s then that the Tar Heels’ quest to reach their 2015-16 goals begins in earnest.
If UNC is to achieve those goals, Justin Jackson will have to play a large role. As a freshman, Jackson started 37 of Carolina’s 38 games, played nearly 27 minutes per game and averaged 10.7 points.
His 37 starts are tied for the most by a freshman under Williams at Chapel Hill and he was the first UNC freshman to average double figures in scoring since Harrison Barnes (2010).
The transition from high school star to All-ACC freshman wasn’t always easy for Jackson, however.
“Away from basketball he had typical freshman things – figuring out professors, classes, learning a new environment and that kind of thing,” said Sharon Jackson. “He had to learn the system and learn to not over think it all the time. He realized you can’t always play the same way in college as you did in high school.”
“During the beginning of the season, he wanted to play perfectly and the overthinking was overriding his thought process of playing basketball,” she continued. “I think that’s when he hit a lull and struggled some during the middle of the season.”
At Duke on Feb. 18, Justin Jackson played just 17 minutes and had two points on 1-of-8 shooting. For someone who put in the work, did things the right way and rarely struggled on the basketball court, Justin Jackson was in uncharted waters.
“After that game he had a conversation with Coach Williams and somewhere in that conversation he told Coach Williams: 'That will never happen again’ (in reference to Jackson’s play). That was a turning point for him. Coach gave him the confidence of ‘OK, I trust you.’ After that, he had the confidence. That’s when the switch was kind of turned on and now it’s ‘let’s play basketball.’”
Justin Jackson scored in double figures in 11 of Carolina’s final 12 games and was playing his best ball in March. During those games the normally even-keeled Jackson showed more emotion. It’s something his family noticed immediately.
“When he held up the three-point symbol, we didn’t like that,” Sharon Jackson said with a laugh. “I say that because that’s not his demeanor. His demeanor doesn’t change. He doesn’t want anyone to know what he is thinking during the game. He wants to keep his opponents guessing.”
“Sometimes people can take that as he’s not pumped up or that he doesn’t have the passion,” she said. “His demeanor, in some sense, is a weapon.”
He posted 22 points on 4-for-5 long-range shooting in an ACC Tournament semifinals upset of Virginia, scored the deciding final four points in UNC's NCAA Tournament opener against Harvard, and was 3-for-3 on three-pointers against Wisconsin in Carolina’s Sweet 16 loss. He averaged 15 points on 71 percent three-point shooting in three NCAA Tournament games.
“We felt like ‘there’s the Justin Jackson as a player we know,’” Sharon Jackson recalled. “It’s like he was just playing the game of basketball. He figured out how to play his game within the system. The way he finished the season was pretty incredible for him. And hopefully when he returns for next season, he’s at that same point, if not even further along, to start the season.”
At the Rammy Awards, UNC’s annual athletic department awards gala, Justin Jackson was named Outstanding Male Newcomer.
“He mentioned that he was up for the award, but there wasn’t an expectation there for him,” Sharon Jackson said. “He was surprised and we were super excited for him after he sent us the text and told us. As parents we think that’s a great achievement. There were some great athletes nominated for that award.”
A successful freshman season, in addition to Justin Jackson’s size, basketball IQ and high-school pedigree, naturally, caught the attention of NBA scouts and media.
Several draft writers thought Justin Jackson could be a late first round pick. Though the Jacksons did their due diligence, Justin never seriously considered leaving Chapel Hill after one season.
“It was discussed,” she said. “It would be silly for us not to, but we didn’t spend a lot of time on it. The ‘one and done’ scenario was not something we came into college thinking about. Sure he finished strong, but we didn’t feel like it was strong enough. We felt like with him coming back, he has the ability to get stronger and improve on some of his skills.
“It was a decision we all came to very comfortably. We have to look at things for the long haul. You’re talking about entering your career for the rest of your life.”
Justin Jackson could be in-line for preseason accolades and will definitely have the attention of NBA scouts heading into next season. More than that, he’ll be an established player on a Carolina team that expects to improve on its Sweet 16 appearance this year.
“Our saying with him is always ‘with success comes great responsibility,’” said Sharon Jackson. “He understands the opportunity he has in front of him and he is taking it very seriously. He’s expecting great things for the team and understands his improvement will be a part of that success.”
Many have pegged success for next year’s UNC team as a Final Four appearance. And next April, basketball’s premiere event tips off in the Jacksons’ home city of Houston.
“That would be incredible,” Sharon Jackson said. “That would be the ultimate experience for us. I think it’s come up in conversation here recently and I know he made a comment that it would be really awesome to play there. We’ve given it more thought than he has. Justin wants to win a national championship. He’s going to try and do whatever he can to help the team achieve that.”
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