By Adam Lucas
As he struggled through some difficult shooting stretches as a sophomore, Justin Jackson knew his mechanics didn’t feel completely right. But it’s hard to make a permanent change playing two games per week and also needing to balance a full class load.
“In the middle of the season, you can’t really change your shot a ton,” Jackson says. “When the season ended and I was able to get back in the gym, I tried to really focus on it.”
Developing a more consistent shot was one of four areas Roy Williams highlighted to the rising junior when they met at the conclusion of his sophomore season (the other three were getting stronger and bigger, developing more explosiveness, and becoming a better rebounder). Jackson hit 30.4 percent from the three-point line as a freshman, but saw that mark dip to 29.2% as a sophomore. His overall shooting percentage also decreased, dropping from 47.7% to 46.6%, and even his free throw percentage fell from 71.0% to 66.7%.
What made his struggles all the more maddening were his occasional hot streaks. In the course of an impressive early season stretch, he became the first Tar Heel since Harrison Barnes in 2012 to score 20 or more points in three straight games (a feat even Marcus Paige never achieved in his decorated UNC career). He made four of six three-pointers in a two-game stretch midway through ACC play, but then went 0-for-2 against Duke. He had made only three of his last 18 three-pointers entering the NCAA Tournament, but then nailed 9-of-19 in NCAA play.
After submitting his name for NBA Draft consideration and going through the NBA Combine process, Jackson elected to return to school. One of his first priorities: refine his shot.
“I’ve been working on shooting the ball the same way every time,” he says. “I was shooting a little flatter and I wasn’t getting much backspin on it. A lot of my misses were short. So I’m trying to get the ball up more and give it a chance to go in. I was pushing the ball, and so it wasn’t necessarily coming off my fingertips the right way. Getting the ball up automatically changed the way the ball was coming off my hand and gave it more backspin.”
Highly unscientific feedback suggests the process has been successful.
“Justin has made a lot of improvements to his jump shot,” says Joel Berry II. “He was unbelievable shooting the ball during pickup this summer.”
Of course, pickup results and Atlantic Coast Conference results are two different subjects. The true test will be whether Jackson can maintain those mechanics—and those results—on a bigger stage.
One advantage Jackson possesses is his ability to be more than just a three-point shooter. He made 53.7 percent of his two-point shots last year, easily the best among Carolina’s primary wing and perimeter players (for the sake of comparison, Paige made 45.9 percent and Berry sank 49.8 percent). The Texas native has always possessed a sneakily diverse offensive game; he’s very effective off the curl and has added a reliable floater. Now, he wants to add even more weapons to his arsenal.
“I’ve worked on a lot of stuff off the dribble,” he says. “If the time comes when we’re late in the shot clock and Coach calls on me to try and score and make a play, I feel more confident with the ball in my hands now. If the defense stops one thing, I feel like there are a bunch of other things I can go to, and the key with that is always having the confidence to go to it.”
That mental side of the game is an area Jackson hopes to improve as an upperclassman. He’s had the physical tools ever since he was a highly touted recruit. But he’s also highly cerebral, both on the court and off the court. That’s a tremendous asset…until it begins to slow him down.
“The whole thing for me is just going out and playing,” he says. “Sometimes I get caught up in thinking and trying to do everything Coach Williams asks us to do perfectly. I have to have confidence in myself and know I can do what Coach asks us to do while still playing my game. When I do that, I’ll be just fine.”