Justin Jackson was patient and created a win-win for all.
I remember a coaching friend telling me about watching Justin Jackson practice before his freshman season at Carolina began. He said Jackson was obviously a basketball player, not just an athlete, when he arrived at UNC. He talked to his teammates in scrimmages and seemed to know where he and everyone else should be.
Jackson’s adjustments to the ACC were twofold. He wasn’t aggressive enough with the ball and his shooting was erratic. But he still seemed destined to be a star with more practice. After he helped the Tar Heels to the ACC regular season and tournament championships on the way to the Final Four and national title game in 2016, JJ declared for the NBA draft and tested the waters.
He was invited to the combine and took to heart the feedback he received upon returning for his junior year. By now, it’s almost legend how he stayed in the gym throughout the off season honing his outside shot and his array of driving floaters. He raised his three-point shooting from 29 percent so much that he became the all-time UNC leader for the number of made three’s in a season with 105.
He was named ACC Player of the Year, All-ACC and first-team All-American. Some critics said he didn’t deserve the ACC’s top honor after a brief shooting slump at the end of the season, but Jackson had a great all-around NCAA tournament and the long-armed 6-8 swingman distinguished himself as what Roy Williams termed an elite defender in shutting down top scorers on Kentucky, Oregon and Gonzaga on the way to cutting down the nets in Glendale, Arizona.
When asked about his cold outside shooting against the Zags in an otherwise fine all around game, Jackson said, ‘Who cares how I shot, we won.” His winning season will be remembered as one of the finest in Carolina history, leading scorer, dramatic driver, timely rebounder, next to best assist man and a great representative of UNC.
Jackson’s No. 44 jersey will be hoisted to the rafters sometime next season, when we will all celebrate one of the most unselfish Tar Heels ever. Thanks, JJ, for doing it right.