A year ago Justin Jackson entered the NBA Draft but didn't sign with an agent. His mission was to learn what NBA teams thought of him as a player and see if he could be a first-round pick.
He was told he could be a first-round pick, but likely not in 2016. He was told to go back to UNC, get stronger, become a better shooter and try again in 2017.
After a dedicated offseason, Jackson set a UNC record for threes in a season (105), increased his three-point percentage by nearly nine points, was named ACC Player of the Year, a consensus 1st team All-American and helped the Tar Heels win the ACC regular season title and then the national championship. His No. 44 jersey will forever be honored in the Smith Center rafters.
On Thursday Jackson announced he's foregoing his senior season at UNC to again enter the NBA Draft. This time he's signing with agent. This time NBA teams don't think could be a first-round pick -- they know he will be.
“We’re excited for Justin and proud of the way he conducted himself each day in leading our team to a national championship,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said in a statement. “Justin explored his draft options after his sophomore season but understood it was in his best interest to play another season of college basketball, and what a year it was for him and our team. He did what our coaches and the NBA people advised him to do – get stronger and work on making more shots. He responded by investing a tremendous amount of his time in the offseason and came back to school a bigger, better and more confident player.
“He improved from a 29 percent three-point shooter to setting school records for three-point shooting; his scoring, rebounding, assists, ball-handling and leadership skills all improved, and when we got deep into the NCAA Tournament, he became an elite defender. His last three defensive performances against Kentucky, Oregon and Gonzaga against some of the most talented perimeter scorers in the country were nothing short of spectacular.
“Justin has improved his draft position immensely this year and it’s a credit to him and the hard work he put into making himself a great player. We are so pleased that he is able to take this step and look forward to watching him play for many years at the next level.”
Jackson spoke exclusively with Inside Carolina about his decision, his time in Chapel Hill, his junior season and being a national champion.
How were you able to improve so much over the course of the year?
"Honestly, going and doing all that stuff last year was the best thing I possibly could've done. Coming back and seeing that I was right there, there's just a few things the NBA thought I needed to get better at that gave me a different motivation. It's easy to say you're working your butt off, but sometimes it doesn't translate. To see it translate, for me, to continue to try and get better - and it was pretty consistent - it feels good to know that I'm leaving everything I had out there, that I accomplished a lot of the things I wanted to do while I was here."
How have you grown as a person and basketball player over the last three years, and to what do you attribute that growth?
"As a person, you come to college and most people say those are the years that you just have fun and there aren't many responsibilities. That it's just school work and, for us, just basketball. As far as maturity, my scale is different from most people's as far as how they are as a person, what they live for, what they believe in. My first two years and into this year a little bit, I wasn't living that all the way like I wanted to. You might not see it on the court, everybody might not see it because they aren't in my personal life, but it kind of took bringing me down to where all I could do was focus in on basketball, school work and, most importantly, God. That helped me on the court for sure. It made me more focused and steady. It's a different feel, I feel like I've grown up in these past four or five months way more than I have the past two years. On the court, I've grown from a leadership standpoint, and knowing I've had more responsibility put on me, I took that very seriously."
Was it difficult to pass up one final year at Carolina?
"It kind of hit me last night. I think the biggest thing is my two roommates, Luke (Maye) and Kenny (Williams). I'm going to miss those guys like crazy. We do pretty much everything together - if we're not doing school work or playing basketball, it's going to eat or going to the movies or whatever. Knowing that I'm not going to be around here and they're going to be doing their own thing - it's sad. I'm going to miss them and I'm going to miss all my teammates.
"Yesterday I was walking through the coaches offices just walking through. I didn't have anything to say, and they asked me 'why are you just walking around here?' In my mind, I was saying I don't have many more chances to actually do that, to walk through here."
Has Carolina met the expectations you had when you committed four years ago?
"It's blown my expectations out the water. My first two years they didn't go the way I kind of planned them to go, but then again I had to take a step back and realize it's not my plan anyways. Secondly, going to a Final Four and losing in the national championship, and then coming back and winning it the next year, then getting all of the accolades individually, I don't know that I came into Carolina thinking I was going to get, or honestly even expecting, something like that. It's been up and down the first two years, now this year being successful and winning a national championship, so it's definitely been great."
Was there a moment where you knew or thought you could reach those individual accolades?
"This summer I felt like I was doing everything I possibly could to put myself into that type of situation, and to be able to have a successful season. I don't know that I was thinking I'd get ACC Player of the Year or First-Team All-American. A lot of that stuff comes from team success. There were some guys that I felt like were extremely deserving of ACC Player of the Year, guys like Luke (Kennard), John (Collins) and Donovan (Mitchell) and some other guys. But I guess when your team is having success and you are one of the better players on the team, that helps. Having a great team helped a lot, but I looked at it as the preparation that I did helped build my confidence on the court."
You've been through this NBA process once already. How will the process and your mindset be different in 2017?
"It's a job. There are no favorites, this is guys' jobs on the line. I have to do everything I possibly can to work my butt off and get better every single day. I'm just going to try and put myself in a good situation and let everything else fall in place however it may."
What's your schedule like this year in preparation for the draft?
"Training I've already been doing. Workouts and stuff we're going to figure out, because we're going to be talking to some people as far as agents go. We'll have to figure out when to do workouts, where to do them. We'll get all that figured out here in the next week or so."
Has Coach (Roy) Williams shared with you his feedback on where you might be drafted?
"He said I was in a better place than I was last year. He has confidence that I'm in that lottery to mid-first round. It's definitely a different voice, you can tell, he's much more confident in where I'll be drafted than last year."
How has your relationship with Williams changed during your career?
"I think we've gotten a little closer. The more time you put in with coach, the more respect you earn from him and the more freedom you have on the court and off the court. Coming into this year, he relied on me a lot and put a lot of things on my shoulders. Whenever you can come through for Coach, that definitely helps. We've grown together and it's been extremely fun this past year."
Other than the national championship, what are a couple moments from your career at UNC that stand out?
"I think the first one is when Coach (Williams) called me before they announced ACC Player of the Year. He's only had a few, and that was cool to get that type of praise from Coach is always extremely exciting. To get that phone call and to know my jersey was going up in the rafters, that's pretty awesome. That's a pretty cool feeling.
"My second one is probably when Luke (Maye) hit the game-winner against Kentucky. That was an unbelievable feeling because it was a guy I'm close with and a guy who was with me the whole entire grind this past summer. That was a great game and then it was kind of a crazy ending, and the fact that we were on the winning end of a game like that was great."
What's life been like since you won the title?
"For me, it hasn't been much different. Except going places, you can't really go anywhere without someone saying congrats or trying to take a picture. I've kind of done the same thing, gone to class, worked out and just done my own thing with some of my guys. You can feel the support, though, it's just a different kind of vibe in the air now. You can feel that from everybody around here, whether they're a fan or not a fan."
What, outside of basketball, will you miss about Carolina and your teammates?
"It'll probably be all the trips we've had and will have to Old Chicago (a restaurant in Chapel Hill). Usually those came after workouts, but now at 10 p.m. we usually head over there and whoever wants to join will join. We talk about pretty much anything under the sun. That's just kind of how we've grown and bonded together. That's probably the thing I'll miss most."