By Adam Lucas
PITTSBURGH—Chronicling the nine made baskets by Justin Jackson that led to his 23 points in Saturday’s win at Pittsburgh would be a basketball delight. He did it from the perimeter, scored in the midrange, and slammed home a ferocious dunk (more on that one later).
But you’ll learn more about this year’s Tar Heels by looking at one of his two assists on the afternoon, and finding out how—and why—he threw that pass.
Carolina was in the middle of perhaps the best passing half of the season. In the first half, they accumulated 13 assists on 14 field goals, and really should’ve had an assist on the 14th. On that play, Jackson whipped a hard pass to Kennedy Meeks in the post, but Meeks missed the scoring opportunity. No problem, though. Meeks, on his way to an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, simply grabbed the board and scored. Don’t worry, Justin—it was a textbook example of an “assist the way we keep them” according to Dean Smith’s longtime philosophy that rewards players for making a great pass even if their teammate doesn’t convert.
A few minutes earlier, however, Jackson showed off the diverse game that has him among the leading ACC Player of the Year contenders. He’d just drilled a difficult three-pointer with the shot clock under three seconds, coming off a Tony Bradley screen to drain a deep jumper. He was in a rhythm, having made his last two shots, and Pitt was wilting.
So when Jackson received the ball on the left wing in a five-point game, you anticipated the three-pointer before he ever shot it. The Panther defense had fallen asleep, and Jackson had one of the clearest looks at the rim he would have all day.
But Jackson didn’t see the rim. He saw Luke Maye posted up on the block in perfect position. One is a leading All-America contender. One has made himself into a key member of the rotation, but largely by outworking opponents rather than scoring over them.
It didn’t matter. Passing up a chance for his second straight three-pointer, Jackson faked a shot, then threw a textbook bounce pass into the post. Maye converted with a quick post move. Surprised at Jackson’s choice? You weren’t the only one.
“To be honest, I was a little surprised he threw it to me,” Maye said. “He’s a great shooter and is shooting the ball incredibly right now, so I thought it was going up. But we were really spreading the ball around.”
For the day, eight different Tar Heels notched at least one assist; more than the seven different players who scored at least one point. Sometimes, it does seem—frequently led by Theo Pinson, who had six assists—that this particular team would rather pass than score. Take your pick of sweet passes: Isaiah Hicks on a nice high-low to Meeks, Maye throwing an inside-out pass to Joel Berry for a three-pointer, Pinson dropping a gorgeous bounce pass on the baseline to Meeks for an easy hoop and Pinson angling another post entry to Meeks. Some of the best passes of the day didn’t even result in an assist—there was Jackson’s bullet to Meeks, and Pinson’s radar-directed bounce pass through the zone to Hicks, who didn’t finish.
Playing so unselfishly makes the Tar Heels fun to watch, and it also makes them very efficient. What is it Roy Williams has told his teams dating back to the 2005 national champions: “It’s amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.”
A team’s best offensive option dictates that mindset. When the leading scorer doesn’t seem concerned about his scoring, how can anyone else complain about their opportunities?
“I know I’ll get my chances,” Jackson said. “On a play like that, we had an easy one down low, so I have to get it to him.” Actually, he’s wrong. He didn’t have to. But he chose to, and that’s a good example of the type of team play that has already earned Carolina a share of the ACC title with a week left to play in one of the toughest league seasons in history.
And, as usual, his generosity was eventually rewarded. Beefy Pitt center Rozelle Nix had played angry on Saturday afternoon, staring down a couple of Tar Heels. But by late in the second half, he was tired. Brandon Robinson made a terrific hustle play near midcourt to save a loose ball for Carolina. He fed Meeks in transition, who was on a 2-on-1 break with Jackson against Nix.
Meeks fed Jackson, freeing Jackson for what you just knew, having watched him for three years, would be a pretty finger-roll to the rim. Instead, the junior exploded off the floor, throwing it through with two hands on top of Nix. Both Meeks and Jackson punctuated the play with a roar.
“It’s funny,” Jackson said. “Brandon and I were just talking, and he asked me if I had ever dunked on somebody in a game. I said no.”
Now he can say yes, and it almost counted as dunking on two people. The only person to enjoy it more than Jackson might have been Meeks.
"It’s his first dunk on somebody!” the senior said with a wide smile. Then he turned serious. “When you’ve got it going, man, it’s hard to stop.”