I can’t say I recognize this version of Justin Jackson, the 2017 ACC Player of the Year and Wooden Award finalist. I’d long gotten used to catching glimpses of him in the shadows of the court, lurking behind defenders on the baseline, ready to put the ball through the net one way or another — though rarely in the ways you’d expect. Jackson was a strange player to watch in his first two years at Chapel Hill; someone with the faint outline of a classic wing, but whose game was calm and almost unconsciously off-kilter. Think Chris Douglas-Roberts at Memphis, with the mind and posture of a septuagenarian Buddhist monk.
I remember his performance as a high school senior in the 2014 McDonald’s All American Game precisely because of how anachronistic he seemed. The Tomball, Texas, native’s game did not necessitate highlight-reel treatment, and yet by the end you couldn’t ignore the numbers: 23 points in 23 minutes on 11-of-14 shooting, sharing co-MVP honors with future top-five draft pick Jahlil Okafor. Yes, in an high school exhibition that housed 15 current NBA players, it was the nondescript Jackson who dominated. He showed exceptional touch from midrange and was perpetually in motion, though his cuts to the basket often stopped just short of their logical conclusion, where he’d loft floaters and flip shots that put him in the direct lineage of Thaddeus Young and fellow Tar Heel Antawn Jamison. Jackson was a wonder of subtlety.
So, then, when (and how) did that Jackson turn into a fire-spitting, 6-foot-8 replica of college Buddy Hield?
It’s not just that Jackson has become one of the most dominant offensive players in the nation (averaging 18.1 points per game on a career-high 53.4 effective field goal percentage), it’s how he has put those numbers on the board. Over his freshman and sophomore seasons, Jackson was a sub-30-percent 3-point shooter, and attempts from behind the arc accounted for only 28.5 percent of his total field goals. In 2016–17, 47.6 percent of his shots have come from long distance, and he’s converting them at a 37.7 percent clip. For most of the year, he’s drilled 3s with aplomb, showing off a side of his game that was well hidden in his underclassman days. Jackson, currently sitting on 90 makes, needs just five more treys to tie Shammond Williams for the program’s single-season record for most 3-pointers made (95), a mark that has stood for the last 20 years. His evolution has lifted UNC to a 27–7 campaign, an ACC regular-season title, and a no. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
The transformation was born of necessity, on several levels: The Tar Heels’ two best players last season (Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige) both decamped for the pros at the end of Carolina’s crushing loss in the 2016 national championship game, and the feedback Jackson got from NBA teams after testing the waters at last summer’s draft combine was pointed and concise — get stronger, and get better from 3. A change in team landscape and individual priorities created the monster we see now. Alongside fellow junior Joel Berry II, Jackson is UNC’s lifeline; over the summer, he gained somewhere in the ballpark of 20 pounds and tirelessly worked on refining his shooting process to shed extraneous motion. It’s all interwoven: Jackson’s added strength has allowed him to shoot from deeper without straining his mechanics, and the reps he’s getting as UNC’s lead weapon have given him plenty of time to grow more comfortable with his motion.
He’s better than he’s ever been, and the best part is he hasn’t lost what made him unique in the first place. He is still in perpetual motion. His floaters remain my favorite weapon in his arsenal. His sense of timing and angles on cuts has always been mature for his age, and he’s regularly been able to confer that court sense to the other side of the play; Jackson may not be a dynamic ball handler, but he’s as good as it gets at the college level in terms of finding open cutters, especially now that defenders have to respect his range. Simply having utility from 25 feet out means that Jackson can run the pick-and-roll with success, even without a tight handle. Getting stronger and improving his shooting has expanded Jackson’s game in directions maybe even he didn’t expect.
Jackson is 22, which is something of a no-man’s land for the star college athlete. NBA scouts treat 22 like a scarlet letter, and as college fans glom onto the next wave of recruits, it can be easy to get lost between hype cycles. Survive long enough to reach upperclassman status, and you are regarded like an institution — beloved, but in a muted, smoldering way. The kind of explosive, manic-pixie-program-savior hype that a freshman accrues dies a quick death.
Jackson was the consensus no. 9 recruit in the nation back in the 2014 class, the highest-rated wing the Tar Heels have signed since no. 1 overall prospect Harrison Barnes in 2010. Despite having started all but four games in his three-season tenure at North Carolina, Jackson has managed to sidestep a lot of those expectations, in part because of his understated game and in part due to the veterans ahead of him who led the way. But there’s no hiding anymore. He’s survived long enough to see the hype descend upon him. Jackson is coming off his worst game of the season in UNC’s 93–83 loss to Duke in the ACC tournament semifinal (6-of-22 shooting and 3-of-11 from 3), and his percentages over the past four games have fallen off a cliff. Come Friday, in the Tar Heels’ first-round matchup against no. 16 seed Texas Southern, fans will expect a resurgence.
Maybe another 25-point explosion is in the works. Maybe it starts with a backdoor cut for a floater and ends with a win. The biggest changes to Jackson’s game came from the smallest adjustments. But spearheading a no. 1 seed in the biggest tournament of his life is no minor deal. If Jackson has left anything hiding in the shadows, now is the time to bring it to light.