CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – In the aftermath of North Carolina’s run to the national championship game last April, Roy Williams provided Justin Jackson with a short list of offseason objectives, not too dissimilar from what NBA personnel would offer the 6-foot-8 wing a little more than a month later.
Jackson took heed, spending his summer working on both his body and his shot, to become better prepared for games like UNC’s 74-63 win over No. 7 Louisville on Wednesday. The Cardinals were physical. They were unrelenting and aggressive, like Rick Pitino teams typically are.
For a long and lean player like Jackson, brute force is often the best course of action for opponents. Physical play is an equalizer of sorts for skilled finesse. Such antics may have rattled the junior wing earlier in his career, but no longer.
“I know going into games that the biggest thing that they’re going to try to do is try to get physical with me, try to get me off the line, and when I drive, try to bump me off my spot,” Jackson said after a win that gave UNC a two-game lead in the ACC standings. “So for me, I just try to continue to play my game and try to outsmart them more than they can out-physical me.”
Jackson scored a team-high 21 points, using his body to get to the rim and using his shot to rattle home several deep 3-pointers. It was the seventh time in nine games the Tomball, Texas native had scored 20 or more points - the 15th time this season – and it was the 10th time he had made at least four 3-pointers. Making Deng Adel’s defensive assignment even more challenging was Jackson’s willingness to attack the rim with as much fervor as pulling from the state of North Carolina logo at center court.
He’s quick to credit UNC strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian for his body development.
“I’m still no big physical specimen, but Jonas has really helped me get stronger and more confident with my body,” Jackson said. “And so when I go in there, I still sometimes go in there a little weak, but when I go in there most of the time I’m able to finish even with some bumps.”
His shooting touch – Jackson is shooting 39.6 percent from 3-point range – is a testament to countless hours in the gym, refining and perfecting his craft.
“It can be a blessing and a curse, but I expect everything to go in,” Jackson said. “It just comes from the time that I put in during the offseason, before practice, after practice, whatever it might be. So for me, every time I shoot, I think it’s going in.”
During the team’s downtime before or after shootarounds, Jackson joins Nate Britt, Brandon Robinson, Kanler Coker and Shea Rush in a long distance affair to see who can make five shots first. Length is no object, and as Jackson told that group in the locker room after Wednesday’s win, the friendly competition helped him put his NBA range on display.
The result was more of the same for Jackson, who has elevated himself into ACC Player of the Year consideration by averaging 19.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per game in league play. He’s 17 made 3-pointers shy of Shammond Williams’s UNC single-season record set in 1996-97.
“Every time [his] shot goes up, I believe it’s going in,” junior guard Joel Berry said. “That’s why I have no problem giving up a shot of my own to pass it to him because I like giving it to the hot hand.”
Jackson is a lock for first-team All-ACC, and according to Louisville head coach Rick Pitino, he should be in the mix for ACC Player of the Year along with Duke’s Luke Kennard. Potentially winning that type of award not only gets your jersey in the Smith Center rafters, but it also boosts your resume on a grander scale.
“Justin Jackson, to me, should be one of the key guys for the Wooden Award,” Pitino said.
Jackson’s growth extends beyond his body and his shot, those determining factors that returned him to Chapel Hill for his junior season and that may lead to his departure shortly thereafter.
“I think Justin’s just played better in many different phases of the game,” Williams said. “Everybody just looks at the ball going in the basket, and that’s a big part because it is called a scoreboard, but he’s gotten better in just about every phase of the game.”
Jackson has long since stopped posting to his social media accounts, and has made a point not to get caught up in the hype that sports media offer. He’s shrunk his inner circle to a select few, including his girlfriend, family and friends, in hopes of limiting distractions so he can focus on the task at hand.
So far that approach it’s working. A second-straight ACC regular season title is in reach for the Tar Heels, and Jackson is the primary reason.