CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- Coaches often talk of their freshmen transitioning past that classification of youth as teams emerge from winter and approach the madness that is March. Justin Jackson removed his rookie tag in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals, scoring 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting to lift UNC past top-seeded Virginia.
The 6-foot-8 wing’s ability to get lost within Roy Williams’s offense provided mixed results at times early in 2014-15, resulting in periods of explosive outputs followed by relative vanishing acts. Following a 1-of-8 shooting display at Duke, Jackson shook his inconsistency and became a legitimate scoring threat during UNC’s late-season run.
The Tomball, Texas product reached double figures in 11 of his final 12 games, shooting 52.1 percent from the floor and 44.7 percent from long range. Jackson connected on the game-winner against Harvard in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, scored 14 second-half points against Arkansas in the third round and tied for the team lead with 15 points in the Sweet 16 loss to Wisconsin.
For a team desperately in need of a complementary scorer to Marcus Paige in the backcourt, Jackson appears ready to fill that role with his versatility in knocking down shots from the perimeter while using his size to be a factor underneath.
By Eric Montross
I sound so partisan because it makes me think this team - this season - has the chance to be exceptional. Justin came in as a freshman and by the end of the year became a focal point and scorer that the team had to rely upon. That's very rare as a freshman.
Opponents had to focus their defense on him at times. His challenge was juggling the learning curve and expectations everyone had of him, and he did it with a consistency that is so hard to find as a freshman. He has a unique size and shooting ability. He can add more strength to his frame. He has the potential to be truly exceptional.
Justin was able, as a freshman, to let his mistakes roll off his back. He has confidence in himself and his team, and that allows you to make mistakes and not be judgmental about it. The fans and the media had such high expectations of him coming in and I was so impressed with his mental ability. From an X and O standpoint, he is a very difficult matchup for other teams, a real headache to guard.
By Rob Harrington
While Marcus Paige understandably will draw the most effusive preseason accolades, Jackson very realistically could emerge as the club’s best player. After a slow start his freshman season, he began to establish a comfort level last spring and showcased the versatile, finesse scoring package that made him a prep All-American. He projects to play at least 30 minutes per game and, with just a touch more strength, should improve as a finisher and become a more balanced inside-out scorer. Jackson should enjoy an immensely successful year and likely will head to the NBA draft next spring.
Xs & Os INSIDER
By Tyler Brooks
Carolina’s freelance offense is fueled by improvisation and creativity. It is designed for players who move well without the ball and know how to position themselves for quality scoring opportunities. Jackson is an ideal fit within such a scheme. With experience in the system, burgeoning confidence, and an ability to score from anywhere on the court, expect him to produce with a level of efficiency that resembles his high school/summer league performances. He possesses the basketball IQ and savvy to make an impact in UNC’s transition attack as well. His primary area for improvement is on the offensive glass, a quality that Roy Williams particularly emphasizes to his small forwards. He’ll need to utilize his height and length and assert himself on the offensive backboards in the coming season.
By Adrian Atkinson
Even casual fans of UNC basketball noticed the improved play of Jackson by the end of the campaign -- particularly as a perimeter threat. His monthly splits demonstrate just how profound that improvement was:
Nov-Dec: 23.1 MPG, 9.6 PPG, 43.6 FG%, 19.4 3Pt%, 28.2 3PtA Rate, 50.1 TS%
Jan-Feb: 28.7 MPG, 10.0 PPG, 46.3 FG%, 29.0 3Pt%, 23.1 3PtA Rate, 52.1 TS%
March: 30.2 MPG, 13.7 PPG, 55.3 FG%, 43.3 3Pt%, 35.3 3PtA Rate, 64.8 TS%
An entire year of the ultra-efficient March version of Jackson would certainly ensure the Heels have one of the nation’s best offenses. If, over the course of an entire season, Jackson can attempt about a third of his shots from behind the arc while maintaining March’s 40+% accuracy from that range, UNC’s floor spacing and inside-out balance will be vastly better than early-2015 versions.
Jackson, already a polished three-level scorer, should take another leap as a sophomore. Possessing great touch near the rim, he converted 72 percent (75-104) of his close shots as a freshman. On non-close two-point attempts, he shot a solid 41 percent (54-133), with that percentage trending up once his trademark floater started to drop more consistently. Assuming more confidence (and accuracy) as a three-point shooter, Jackson will be in the rarified air of players who are legitimate threats as a close, mid-range, and deep options. As a freshman, his close-midrange-deep shot distribution was 32-40-28. This season, it might approach an even more balanced mix (and trading non-close 2s for 3s should help the Heels’ efficiency).
“This is the one where the year of experience and the natural progression with strength and the older he gets you expect him to come back stronger and be able to play more physical.” – ACC Coach
“He has all the offensive tools to be effective, he started to extend his range towards the end of the year and he’s become a more consistent knock down three-point shooter. This will probably be his last year in college.” – ACC Coach
“We have to crowd him and make him put the ball on the floor. Be physical with him and always keep a body on him and make sure you block out.” – ACC Coach
He’s a heck of a player. I think he’s really, really good. I think he can score in every way. I think especially towards the end of the season last year he started to score the ball a lot better. He just has a knack for scoring the ball. I think this year he could maybe be their leading scorer, even right there with Paige. I think he’s that good of a scorer.” – ACC Coach
“Defensively you can attack him. Offensively he’s a great cutter and he’s great moving without the basketball. When you are guarding him and you let up for one second, he’ll back cut you or he’ll curl off of down screens. He moves really well without the ball.” – ACC Coach
“I’ve always liked how he plays – he’s an intelligent player with where he scores and how he scores. And you can’t overlook the efficiency that that he plays with. Concerns are his athleticism and how capable he is on defense. Also want to see how much he can improve his strength. He seems like a mid-range player, that’s where he’s at home, even though he showed some long-range ability in the postseason games I saw. Want to see him do more going toward the rim, powering through contact.” – NBA Scout
“I think what’s really interesting about him is his versatility. He can do everything with the ball, he’s an underrated passer, developing ball handling ability, great touch around basket, pretty good shooter. He checks a lot of boxes in the way he plays the game and knows how to play the game.” – NBA Scout
“The biggest concern with him is his body. He’s light weight, not built for an 82-game schedule, and the other question mark is consistency. He had some really bright spots last year and then he had some games where he just didn’t play as well as he could have. Can he be a night in and night out guy? ” – NBA Scout
“The buzz we’ve gotten is that he should be on our radar because there’s a good possibility he’ll enter the draft. He’s not a Klay Thompson shooter, so you’re trying to see if he can rise above the level of Allen Crabb, Tony Snell. When you evaluate Jackson you’re looking at that kind of player range. He’s competing with the R.J. Hunters of the world – lanky, not elite athleticism, but a high IQ shooter with length. He’d need to be a marksman – a stone cold marksman - to truly surpass that echelon of prospect.” – NBA Scout
“He’s a quieter type, not an alpha, but is very efficient. If he could knock down threes, show an ability to have a quick release and show some improvement going to the rim and defensively, that would help him move up into the lottery. It’s going to be a bad draft in 2016, and a stronger draft in 2017, so that’ll be a factor he’ll consider as well. ” – NBA Scout
(J.B. Cissell, Evan Daniels, Sherrell McMillan, Jack Morton, Ben Sherman contributed to this feature.)