CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – With Joel Berry’s hot start to the 2016-17 season, including the Maui Invitational MVP honor, it looked like the junior guard would be UNC’s go-to scorer for the duration of the season. However, after missing games due to a sprained ankle and now dealing with a non-basketball related illness, junior Justin Jackson seems to have taken command in the scoring column.
Through UNC’s first 14 games, Jackson leads the Tar Heels with 17.5 points per game. It’s been over the course of his last five games, though, where the Texas-native has shined brightest. Ten days after scoring 27 against Davidson, Jackson dropped a career-high 34 points in the loss to Kentucky in Las Vegas. His groove continued following the Christmas break, as he erupted for 28 points in UNC’s route of Monmouth on Wednesday.
It’s easy to see that Jackson is a transformed, and more mature, player compared to last season. Head coach Roy Williams says that change came from, as you can guess, work in the offseason.
“I think he’s more aggressive and that’s what we talked about all offseason,” Williams said at his press conference on Friday. “Looking for shots, but also looking to drive the ball to the basket and getting to the free throw line. I think he’s had a couple of games where he’s gotten to the free throw line, but a couple of games he hasn’t. So I’m still pushing towards that.”
Jackson’s biggest improvement has been at the three-point line. The junior is shooting 40-percent from beyond the arc, which is much improved from his 29-percent average over his first two seasons in Chapel Hill.
Even with the impressive improvement, Williams says he won’t judge Jackson's shooting until the season’s end.
“I’m one of those guys that after 11 or 12 or 13 games, I never evaluate how a guy is shooting the ball,” Williams said. “His percentage right now is better than it’s ever been, but after the first two years I was amazed that it was that low because I always think it’s going in…. I’m not going to speak for the shooting because I want to see that continue.”
While he leads the team in scoring, Williams says he needs more out of Jackson.
“If I can get him to get to the rebounds, get to the backboards, then I’ll say that’s closer to the player I thought I was going to get.”
What’s your evaluation of where you guys are heading into conference play? Positives?
“I’ve been pleased with our unselfishness. For the most part we’ve taken good shots. Kids are willing to give their teammates better shots. I’ve been pleased that Kennedy (Meeks), Isaiah (Hicks), and Tony (Bradley) have done a good job of rebounding. We’ve still got to get better rebounding from the three-man particularly, but also from all of our perimeter players. We’ve shot the ball decently, but we haven’t shot it great. I think those things come to mind more than anything on the positive side."
What about negatives?
"The negative side is I think our field goal percentage defense is not where I want it to be. We had two, maybe three games that teams shot the ball really well against us. Take those three out and our defensive field goal percentage is really good. That’s a negative for us. We’re not blocking a lot of shots but we’re still jumping up in the air too many times. I don’t mind not blocking a lot of shots if we stay on the ground. So we’ve got to do a better job on our close-outs and staying down and being the second guy to jump… I think what we still have to work on is guarding the basketball and trying to keep the dribble and the ball handler in front of us so we don’t get beat on penetration. That not only gives them the open threes but it breaks down your box out. That would be the number one thing. The other thing is just having pride defensively that it’s your responsibility to guard your man and make it very difficult for him to score.”
Since Joel (Berry)’s return, do you feel like he’s kind of recaptured your play from earlier in the season?
“I don’t know that we’ve seen enough of that because he came back for two games and then he got sick again. I don’t think we’re as healthy as we were in Maui. That would be one thing that we’d be able to evaluate a little more after a couple more games. We’re looking for, hopefully in the next two to three weeks at most, to getting Theo (Pinson) and that would be something we’ll have to adjust to as well.”
After the past few games you’ve expressed some frustrations. Has there been a common theme causing that?
“I’d say the one that’s more frustrating is turnovers and particularly our play from the guys that are in there when Joel is not in there. I want Seventh (Woods) and Nate (Britt) to have gained a great deal from all the extra time that they got when Joel was out and to play well. Their numbers don’t look very good. Nate’s been doing a nice job on the defensive end and it’s the reason he’s getting so much time. I think I wanted to try to get much more positive numbers from those guys during that time period when Joel was out. That would give them more confidence to have even more positive numbers. That part has been sort of unsettling. I haven’t given up on them because we have the major part of the season just starting. They do need to be able to come in and do a better job for us when Joel’s on the sideline.”
How is Joel’s health?
“He wasn’t feeling ill, he was terribly ill. He looked ridiculous, sounded ridiculous, didn’t do anything. It’s one of the few times I’ve had a player not do anything at all in practice the day before and still play them in the game. They thought it was a 24-36-48 hour deal. When we saw him yesterday… we had our children’s holiday clinic, we had almost 800 kids here for four hours, so there wasn’t a lot of practice going on. We did some free throw shooting, so I’m hopeful he’ll look a lot better today.”
Justin Jackson said he worked a lot on his shot this offseason. Did you notice anything, or see anything, this offseason about how he handled that?
“Mechanically there’s never been anything wrong with his shot. It’s not like he has his elbow out or his guide hand in the way. It just hadn’t gone in. The thing you do is keep shooting, keep shooting, more repetition…. You can always work on your shot, and that’s what Justin did… For two years he shot 29-percent total and I didn’t notice because every time he shot it I thought it was going in.”
How much of his commitment to his shot was a suggestion from the staff and how much was him taking it upon himself to do that?
“In this case, it was a requirement. If you want to be one of the best players in college basketball, you can’t shoot 29-percent from the three-point line. So we emphasized it, but we don’t do the sweat. The kids have to go in there and do that. That’s what Justin did, he understood, and he’s done that…. I don’t think very many kids go in and shoot 10 hours a day just because the coach said so. They go in there because they believe it’s the right thing to do.”
What are some of the final things on the checklist to make sure Theo is good to go in about two or three weeks?
“Well, he hasn’t practiced yet, and that’s the biggest thing…. He hasn’t gotten in a defensive stance, he hasn’t boxed out. So we have to wait and start getting him in those things. I go by what the doctors say and I’m hopeful we can get that going soon. What you’ve got to do is be able to go out and practice for two or three days and see how you feel and then practice for two or three more days and see if you’re good enough to play."