By Adam Lucas
Today’s announcement that Justin Jackson is a first-team member of the NABC All-America team puts Jackson in exclusive company. With the new addition to his junior campaign, he’s officially a consensus first-team All-America. He’s just the 18th Tar Heel to earn such honors.
But it also puts Jackson in an even more unique situation. He made exactly zero All-America lists in his first two seasons in Chapel Hill. That means this is the second straight year a Tar Heel has gone from completely off the All-America board in his initial Carolina seasons to becoming a first-team All-America player. Brice Johnson did not make an All-America team for his first three seasons, then was a consensus first-team All-America player as a senior.
That’s two straight years that a Tar Heel player improved from a solid but unspectacular player to earning the most exclusive individual honor in Carolina basketball—their jersey in the Smith Center rafters. Tar Heel players aren't just winning, they're also developing.
“It’s a great sense of satisfaction, because I was able to help them buy into more sweat,” said Roy Williams. “It wasn’t just that I coached them. I also got them to buy into working harder.”
It's not that Williams is taking unknown scraps and turning them into stars. Both Johnson and Jackson were fiercely recruited, with Jackson receiving more national attention than Johnson. But players with similar profiles fade away every single season. Williams has figured out a way to help players willing to work get as close as humanly possible to their maximum potential. If you're willing to put in the effort, he'll be right beside you with the motivation and the teaching.
Jackson’s offseason has been well chronicled. He never set a specific number of shots he wanted to take each day. Instead, he shot until his jumper felt good. It’s paid off with a significant increase in his long-range marksmanship, as his three-point accuracy has vaulted from 29.2 percent as a sophomore to 38.7 percent as a junior.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever coached anyone who took more shots and worked on his shot more in the offseason—and is still working on it—than Justin,” Williams says. “There’s a feeling of satisfaction that I was able to help him believe that more work would translate into better play.”
The Texas native knows exactly what created his storybook junior season.
“It’s hard work,” Jackson said. “It’s all that time I’ve put in in the gym. Last year, I tried to get better, but I don’t know if I necessarily had the right mindset going into the offseason and then into the season. This summer was big for me. I tried to use the motivation to try and get myself better, which would end up helping the team get better.”
That’s the unspoken byproduct of the significant improvement players are experiencing in Chapel Hill. Johnson led his team to an ACC championship and the national championship game. Jackson’s squad won the ACC by two full games and will play tonight in the regional semifinal against Butler.
That’s the kind of improvement that can’t be quantified in preseason projections, which often focus on the newest, hottest faces in the game. Meanwhile, Tar Heel veterans are regularly taking the work they’re doing in empty gyms and translating it into success on the biggest national stage in front of the entire country.
Looking back, the signs were there of Jackson’s potential. He led the team in scoring in three of his five postseason games as a freshman. As a sophomore, when Marcus Paige missed early games, Jackson was terrific, making 25 of his 43 shots on a Midwestern road trip while setting or tying then-career highs in four different categories.
The biggest difference this year, then, has been his ability to consistently reproduce those types of performances, even with opposing defenses focused on him.
“I called Justin when he was named ACC Player of the Year,” Williams says. “I said, ‘What does that tell you?’ He said, ‘Winning, Coach.’ I loved that because I always tell them that winning teams get the awards and rewards. But I told him I appreciated him saying that, but it was pretty simple: he put in the sweat.”
And the sweat put him into illustrious company. It also sets a precedent of the level that can be reached with the combination of hard work and coaching. The tools are there in Chapel Hill; Johnson and Jackson are the latest two examples of what can be done with those tools. Who’s next? That’s the fun of it—no one yet knows who the next candidate will be who takes the lessons from his postseason meeting with Williams and turns them into offseason fuel mixed with relentless workouts.
“It’s a really neat moment as a coach,” Williams says. “My greatest satisfaction as a coach is seeing the look on our guys’ faces when they accomplish something that’s really hard to do. That’s what these guys are doing.”