Though it only lasted five weeks, Justin Jackson’s time training at home could have a major impact on the 2015-16 college basketball season.
Already viewed by many as likely a preseason top five team, an improved Jackson would give the Tar Heels an additional perimeter scorer to complement senior guard Marcus Paige.
So, Jackson opted out of spending the first summer session in Chapel Hill, instead choosing to work with strength trainer Rashad Ford and former NBA player and coach John Lucas.
The questions are, then, did Jackson get better? Did he get stronger? Did he improve his game?
He says yes to all three.
“A lot of coming home for me was mental,” said Jackson, who leaves for Chapel Hill on Thursday. “I think obviously the biggest things are that I’ve gotten stronger, bigger and put on some weight. Obviously I‘m not a huge brute or anything, but from where I was I’ve definitely gotten bigger and stronger. I’ve gained 10 to 15 pounds, and it’s not just weight. It’s functional weight.”
“Basketball wise, being with John Lucas and playing against some of those other college guys and pros was more mental than physical,” he continued. “I got a chance to kind of see where I was at, going against guys like that.”
Jackson’s weekly routine consisted of getting up around 6 a.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. First he worked out with Lucas for a few hours, before weightlifting sessions with Ford. After the weightlifting was complete, he returned to the gym to get additional shots up.
Not exactly an ordinary – or relaxing – summer vacation.
“(Monday) was the last day and it felt good to be done, honestly,” he said. “It got extremely tiring. Even though it’s tough to get up in the mornings, when I saw good things come out of it in a short time, it motivated me do even more.”
Jackson said he first noticed his gains on the scale and in the weight room a couple weeks ago.
“We were playing and once I got past someone I was able to hold them off instead of them bumping me off my path,” he explained. “On defense, I was able to get in front of someone and bump them off their path a little bit. That was one of the biggest eye openers for me. The work was showing up on the court.”
Jackson’s frame works against him on the eye test. Former professionals who visited Lucas’s training sessions saw the lanky, 6-8 forward and immediately thought he might be tentative or hesitant.
That wasn’t the case.
“(Former NBA player) Ricky Davis came back and played with us a little bit and so did (former NBA point guard) Mike James,” Jackson said. “I could sense the mentality of some of the guys was ‘this is the young guy, he’s not necessarily on our level.’ I love when people do that. For me it’s not a NBA player or anything, it’s just another guy out there playing. I tried to score on them as much as I could, play defense as hard as I could and stop them as much as I could. It’s not like I was just going to go in there and lay down because these guys played in the league.”
Jackson now returns to Chapel Hill a better version of the player Carolina fans last saw against Wisconsin nearly three months ago.
“It was nice not having to take classes and to just get away from everything on campus,” he said. “I miss it and am looking forward to going back, but I needed the time to clear my mind and work on myself. I think a lot of good has come from being home.”
“There were things I needed to get better at and I think I came down here and did them,” he continued. “As much as it stunk not being with the guys, I think it’ll help the team out in the long run.”
The long run, Jackson hopes, ends right where it started for him five weeks ago.
Houston, site of the 2016 Final Four.
“We have high expectations,” Jackson said of the Tar Heels. “For us, it’s going to the Final Four and trying to win a national championship. That’s our mindset.”
To better give readers a better understanding of Jackson’s progress this summer, Inside Carolina spoke with four people who have seen it up close – the NBA players he was facing in games every day.
John Lucas III – Point Guard, Detroit Pistons
“I’ve seen a lot of growth and a lot of improvement in him. Every day we’re seeing the jump he’s going to make. He’s been working out with nothing but great college players and pros. I think it’s going to be a great year for him because he can flat out shoot the ball. When he releases his hand, you might as well get your defense ready and go to the other end.”
“He’s more athletic than people think he is. He can really put the ball on the ground and get his shot off. People always see him coming off screens to catch and shoot, but he can really face up and go to work. He’s been working on that a lot. He has more confidence in it now and he’s got a little step-back now. Because of his length it’s going to be hard to block his shot anyway. With a move like that, he’s going to be even more of a threat.”
Tim Frazier – Point Guard, Portland Trailblazers
“He has a strong work ethic. I’ve seen him every day, three times a day for the last month, working out and getting better. He’s one of the first ones there and last ones to leave. He’s growing up as a man. I did this a couple years ago (with John Lucas) and it builds you.”
“The dude can shoot it. That’s one of the first things I noticed. He has great form and rarely misses two in a row. I’ve watched him put the time in… he just plays hard and doesn’t back down from anyone. He’s been in the post, guarding ball screens and all the positions.”
Jared Sullinger – Forward, Boston Celtics
“He’s just a super solid basketball player. He’s not going to overwhelm you with flare; he’s going to overwhelm you with fundamentals of basketball.”
“A lot of people said he was soft and a lot of people say he doesn’t have that ‘dog’ and that heart. What I see out here is, when he is playing, he’s going hard and playing hard. He’s not backing down from challenges. He’s creating his shot better. He’s getting to the rim off the dribble. He’s not just the catch and shoot player everyone thinks he is. He’s doing a little bit of everything.”
“I think he’s going to have a huge year for North Carolina.”
Mike James – 16-year NBA Veteran
“I’ve known him for years and to see him develop year by year has been amazing. He went from a top high school player to top college players to one of the top players in the world. It shows the work he’s put in.
“Skill level is one thing, with this generation everyone’s skill level will be similar, but the work ethic will be what separates you. John Lucas has taken his game to another level. With his skills and new mindset, I think he’s going to be one of the first players to be drafted next year.”
“When you see him play physical, and with the confidence level he has now, you didn’t see that in him early. He was always quiet. Coach (Lucas) would scream and yell at him and he wouldn’t say anything back. I think (laughs) he got tired of Coach Lucas yelling and now he takes it out on guys during games.
“When he steps on the court he truly believes he’s one of the best players. That’s all mental. His physical level has taken him so far already, but his mental capacity is taking him to another level as a basketball player.”
Jackson's Summer: Progress Report
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