Justin Jackson could be putting his feet up right now. The incoming freshman graduated from high school three weeks ago and won’t get to Carolina until the third week of June, in time for the second summer session. High school has ended, and college hasn’t yet begun. It’s that rare time of no responsibilities. Or, it could be. But Jackson isn’t sitting back and resting up before the grind begins.
“I’m in the weight room Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and then Tuesdays and Thursdays I’m on the court doing court work,” he says from his home in Tomball, Texas (near Houston). On the court, he’s working with former NBA player and coach John Lucas.
In the weight room, the 6’8, 185-pound Jackson is working on getting stronger, and though he admits his workouts aren’t as tough as the ones Carolina’s Jonas Sahratian will put him through in Chapel Hill, he’s preparing for the rigors of physical play in college basketball.
Though his height often put him at center in high school, Jackson sees himself helping Carolina from the outside in. “I’m definitely a two or three,” he says. Before his growth spurt, it was Jackson’s shooting that kept him on the court among bigger players. Since he’s added his height, he’s maintained the precision from the floor.
That early shooting success gave him confidence as he stepped up in competition. Today, Jackson feels comfortable receiving the ball anywhere on the court. ESPN’s Paul Biancardi regards him as one of the best shooters in the Class of 2014. And he’s not picky about where on the court he receives the ball.
“I can shoot pretty well, but obviously you can always get better, so I think really anywhere as far as the three-point line, inside the three-point line, it doesn’t matter to me,” he says.
The child of two basketball players, Jackson gravitated toward the sport early. Success didn’t come easy for Justin; at first, he struggled with the fundamentals of the game. “It was fun to watch him develop, especially when he was eight, nine, ten years old, watching him try to learn to do a lay-up,” says Lloyd Jackson, Justin’s dad and an assistant on his high school team. “He was so bad for so long, but he was determined to be the best that he could possibly be.”
The same determination that pushed him to eventually succeed back then continues to motivate him to this day. In April, Justin led all scorers with 23 points on 11-14 shooting at the McDonald’s All-American game. He was named co-MVP (along with Duke signee Jahlil Okafor), a distinction that places him among former Tar Heels such as James Michael McAdoo, Harrison Barnes, Ronald Curry, Jerry Stackhouse and J.R. Reid. But for Jackson, the award was not the culmination of a journey, but rather a nice nod to his hard work thus far.
“I wouldn’t say it’s affirmation, because I haven’t really done anything in the college game,” Justin says. “But it’s an honor, and definitely a blessing. It feels good to get it, but you’ve just got to keep working hard.”
Justin’s father is not surprised by that attitude. “Normally when you have success, whether it’s in basketball or your job or whatever, you kind of take a little break,” Lloyd Jackson says. “His success, he’s taken it and used it as motivation.”
And so in a few weeks, Justin will bring that motivation to Chapel Hill. Over the last couple of seasons, Jackson and his family have watched as much Carolina basketball as possible. Justin sees himself as someone who can contribute right away.
“A lot of the scoring fell on Marcus (Paige) and (Leslie) McDonald once he came back, so I think that’s definitely somewhere I can see myself helping,” Justin says. “And with that scoring is shooting, whether it’s free throw shooting, three-point shooting, any type of shooting. I think definitely if I keep working, I can come in there and help out with that.”
“I think Justin’s ability to score, his IQ and his length will help tremendously on the offensive end to spread the floor,” Lloyd Jackson says. “On the defensive end, he can help in cases where at times last year I think they were outmatched (size-wise) from a two and three perspective.”
With time in the weight room, Jackson will be able to add some strength to his frame, and thus the ability to hang tough inside with ACC big men. If he can do that—and maintain his shooting touch—he will be an extremely dangerous weapon for the Tar Heels. He’ll be hard to guard inside and out, and difficult to get around and over on the defensive end.
While talking to Justin, it’s clear he has both the confidence and the work ethic to succeed in college basketball. The potential is there. Now, he has the opportunity to seize that potential and become a featured player for the Tar Heels. He can shoot well, and he’s got the length to rebound and to make life difficult for opponents. The task now is to take that potential, find a fit on the floor and turn it into results. The confident—but not cocky—Justin Jackson says he’s ready for the challenge. “I’m going to do my best.”
Lloyd Jackson, for one, thinks the sky is the limit for his son. “This is Coach now, not Dad,” he says, stepping out of one role and into another one while evaluating Justin. “You add another 15-20 pounds, and I think it’s scary to think where he can go.”