A Road Less Traveled: UNC's Justin Jackson Blossoming as a Throwback Player

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A Road Less Traveled: UNC's Justin Jackson Blossoming as a Throwback Player
Gerry Broome/Associated Press

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Five-star wing Justin Jackson arrived on the college basketball scene last year with a scouting report that is rarely attached to players in this era: His strength was the mid-range jumper.

The mid-range jumper is a lost art, and in some statistical circles, it's considered the worst shot in basketball. But Jackson developed his niche almost by accident.

Jackson's parents, Sharon and Lloyd, started teaching him the proper way to shoot from the time he was a toddler on a Little Tikes goal. When Jackson moved up to a real basket, his parents wouldn't let him shoot outside of his range. If he had to change his form, it was too far out.

Jackson wasn't even allowed to attempt a three-pointer "until you're strong enough to shoot the shot the way you would at the free-throw line," his mom told him. His license to release from the arc came as a teenager, but by that time, he had found his in-between game.

Peyton Williams/Getty Images

"Because he had to stay in the mid-range for so long," Sharon says, laughing.

Today, the work of a family who went against the grain has produced one of the most unique, refreshing players in college basketball. Jackson is a throwback—"He does so many things that you don't see modern players do," an NBA scout said—and every movement on the court is calculated by playing the "right" way.

No wasted dribbles. No forced shots. No flash. "I know some people will talk about 'Justin doesn't dunk enough,'" Sharon says, "and a lot of it is just give us two points." It's almost like North Carolina coach Roy Williams is in charge of the joystick.

"The way he moves without the ball is very rare, and not just that, it's the way he passes is very rare," an NBA scout said. "Most guys can drive and kick or drive and drop off when the help defender comes off the big, but he just sees the floor and he's so accurate, almost like a quarterback sitting back in the pocket."

That awareness is why Jackson is so intriguing as a prospect—NBADraft.net has him going 26th in the 2016 first round—and why he could be the X-factor for the title chances of the fifth-ranked Tar Heels, who started the year ranked No. 1. 

Jackson, a sophomore, is not UNC's superstar. That would be seniors Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige. But he's next in line if he stays in school—the NBA scout believes his career arc could follow Michigan State's Player of the Year candidate Denzel Valentine, another player with a high basketball IQ—and he's a difficult matchup because of his size (6'8") and ability to impact the game in areas where most are uncomfortable. 

In some ways, that's because Jackson was sheltered from bad habits—on and off the floor.


Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

Jackson is the oldest of four children, and his upbringing isn't in line with most big-time prospects of this era. His parents met at Blinn Community College in Texas. Lloyd was a sprinter on the powerhouse track team—Blinn was known for its track program, which won nine straight indoor and outdoor national titles from 1987 to 1995—and Sharon was a power forward on the basketball team.

They were both people of great faith who also loved hoops. Lloyd tried to play at Blinn and later tried to walk on at Houston. "I was an undersized guard for what U of H had in mind," he said.

The Jacksons figured out their son shared their passion for hoops when they lived in Cincinnati, and eight-year-old Justin would shovel the snow so he could shoot baskets.

"Whenever I would lose some of that drive," Jackson says, "my mom would always tell me, 'What happened to the Justin that would be out there shoveling snow so he could go out and shoot?'"

Jackson loved being on the court, and he loved being at home with his family, and his parents figured out a way to combine his two passions when they decided to home-school Jackson starting in the fourth grade.

Jackson had missed a week-and-a-half of school with the flu the previous year, and when his teacher sent home what he'd missed, Jackson finished the work in an afternoon. Sharon also noticed that Jackson was always coming home with coloring sheets.

"He was finishing math, grammar and other subjects in a manner of 20-minute time frame and coloring the rest of the time," Sharon said. "We had some really good friends who had talked about home schooling, and we'd always thought, 'That's just weird. We're not going to do that. We're not going to be that weird family.'

"But we realized we could be doing so much more with his time than him just sitting there."  

No wasted time, in a way, became Jackson's mantra.

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

One luxury of home school was it allowed Jackson the freedom to work on his game when other kids were in school. When the Jacksons moved back to Texas when Jackson was in sixth grade and settled in Tomball, a small town outside of Houston, they eventually built a 50-by-60-foot full court in their backyard. The court, made of a Sport Court surface, had both the high school and college three-point line, goals on both sides and lights so the Jacksons could play at night.

The court allowed Sharon and Lloyd to regularly work out with their children and make sure they focused on the right things.

It started with making sure Jackson did a proper layup from both sides of the basket as a kid. A few years later, they made sure he was dribbling with his head up by making him wear goggles with the bottoms blacked out so he couldn't look at the ball when he dribbled.

When Jackson would try to show off a spin move to his mom, she responded: "You know what, just dribble correctly and be able to cross over and perfect these things. When you get to the NBA, you can do the fancy stuff."

As Jackson got older, he added some of what his mom might label "the fancy stuff." He mastered a feathery floater, an unblockable weapon considering Jackson grew to 6'8". Houston-based trainer Kyle Manary worked on balance drills with Jackson, which included the Dirk Nowitzki one-footed fadeaway, a shot Jackson will occasionally unleash.

That's as close as Jackson comes to shooting a trick shot. He never allowed himself to practice something he couldn't use in a game.

"A lot of kids walk in the gym and they're shooting shots from half court," Manary said. "From the time he steps on the floor, it's about getting better."

That isn't just from a skills standpoint, either. It's easy to stereotype home-school kids as coddled, but his parents wanted him to be tough on the floor.

In fourth grade, the Jacksons found a 14-and-under home-school team in Cincinnati that was run by former NBA player Ronnie Grandison. The Jacksons just wanted Justin to be able to practice, but he ended up starting.

Grandison put his younger players up against the high school varsity in a drill called war that included four players on the floor battling for a rebound. To get off the floor, you had to grab a rebound, which was next to impossible for the much-younger Jackson. 

Courtesy of the Jackson family
Justin Jackson when he was in the fourth grade driving to the bucket.

"Justin would be in there just getting ping-ponged, and the coach would look at me, 'Should I pull him out?' No, keep him in there a little bit longer, and you could just see the frustration, yet he was bound and determined," Sharon said. "Then, finally, we'd have to pull him out because he was getting pretty beat up in there."

Jackson also frequented John Lucas' gym in high school. Lucas is notorious for being demanding of the guys in his gym, and he challenged Jackson by putting him up against pros.

"He would usually always put me up against the guys who were bigger, better, stronger than I was, so I had to figure out how am I going to score on these guys," Jackson said. "He would push me as if I was supposed to be scoring on them. I think that helped my aggressiveness and helped a lot of the different aspects of my game."

Current Milwaukee Bucks wing Khris Middleton was a regular opponent one summer.

"He scored on me pretty much every time," Jackson said. "And it was like, 'Goodness, this is what I'm trying to work to get to,' but then it gave me a little more confidence, because I would score on him a couple times."

Jackson dominated the home-school competition during the winter months—he averaged 31.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.9 blocks as a senior—so his parents did everything they could to find challenges and help him expand his game.

During his sophomore year of high school when he was working with Manary, the trainer challenged Jackson to run a suicide in 27 seconds, a grueling task that Kobe Bryant created for himself. Jackson kept trying until he finally crossed the finish line in 27 seconds. Then he threw up all over the court.

"Justin had never thrown up before," Lloyd said. "I think that was a mental breakthrough for him of really understanding what hard work is."

At North Carolina's practices, Jackson finishes in first place in every sprint. He was blessed with his father's sprinter speed, but he also never shows fatigue.

That's a huge plus in North Carolina's system. The Tar Heels have ranked in the top 51 in pace in all 13 seasons under Williams, according to KenPom.com. Almost every drill in a UNC practice is geared toward increasing stamina.

It's hard enough trying to keep up with the Heels and their secondary break, but even when the game slows to a half-court pace, Jackson is continuously moving away from the ball.

"I grew up watching Rip Hamilton, and he never stopped moving," Jackson said. "By the end of the game, his defender was worn out. I always took pride in being in really good shape, so by the end of the game, I was still going and my defender was calling for a sub or just tired."

Jackson's feel for how to use that to his advantage has increased this season, but for much of his freshman year, he was just a pawn in the system.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Jackson (left) as McDonald's All-American co-MVP with Jahlil Okafor

The expectation was that Jackson would be a primary scorer on the wing. He came in with a lofty ranking—ninth in his class, according to 247Sports.com—and he scored 23 points and was the co-MVP of the McDonald's All-American Game. But through the first 26 games of the season, Jackson averaged 9.5 points and shot just 20.4 percent from beyond the arc.

"It was just me thinking 'Where do I need to be on defense? What spot do I need to be on offense? When do I need to screen? When do I need to look to shoot?' And it's just different," Jackson said. "I didn't even know it was going to be like that until I got here."

The low point was an overtime loss at Duke when Jackson scored only two points.  

"I don't think he allowed himself to play freely," Sharon said. "He wanted to do the job that Coach Williams was wanting him to do, and our advice to him was you have to play the way you know how to play within coach's system. Coach has a system, but he became a robot."

Jackson picked North Carolina because he felt comfortable. He had always kept his circle small. Jackson had three friends growing up in Tomball, and they spent most weekends together doing "pretty much anything that was quote-unquote safe," Jackson said.

Jackson doesn't curse, and he goes to church regularly, so his parents encouraged him to go to a school where he didn't have to hide who he was.

"A part of it is his faith," Lloyd said. "He wanted to be in an environment where, whether you believe what I believe or not, you respect what and who I am."

The Jacksons saw Williams as a family man they could trust, but Jackson still had the fears and hesitations of most freshmen. He didn't want to step on his older teammates' toes by being too aggressive, and thus, he was often too passive.

The Duke performance helped him see the light. When the UNC bus got back to Chapel Hill after the game, Jackson and Williams sat on the bus and talked for about an hour. He promised Williams that he would never play like that again. Williams gave Jackson some more rope to play his game, which showed Jackson the coach trusted him.

"Just like in relationships, he sits back and observes and then he goes in," Sharon said. "That's what happened to him in the season."

After the Duke game, Jackson averaged 13.4 points and made 17 of his final 38 threes after starting the year 11-of-54. The game that got UNC folks excited about this season was a 22-point performance in an upset win over Virginia in the ACC tournament semifinals. The confidence from that game carried over to the NCAA tournament, where he averaged 15.0 points per game on UNC's Sweet 16 run. 

The focus this offseason was getting Jackson to be even more aggressive.

"We knew this year he was going to be our primary scorer on the wing, so we just talked to him all summer about being aggressive and picking your spots," Paige said. "You're really efficient, so we need you to be aggressive and attack and mix it up a little bit more."

Jackson got an opportunity to be more aggressive when Paige injured his hand in the preseason, which elevated Jackson to the go-to guy. After struggling the first couple of games, he had his breakout performance, a season-high 25 points, in a loss at Northern Iowa.

At the CBE Classic the following week, Jackson won MVP honors after averaging 21.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in two wins.

Jackson is playing with more freedom and letting his instincts take over. His scoring is up (from 10.7 as a freshman to 12.9 per game this season), but he's also creating more opportunities for his teammates. His assist rate is up 2.3 percent, according to KenPom.com.

Most of the passes Jackson makes he sets up before he even has the ball. He has the ability to see plays before they develop.

That vision translates off the floor as well. This summer when Jackson was back home in Texas, he went to watch his younger brother Jonathan at a camp run by Lucas.

Lucas, whose gym in Houston is regularly filled with pros and college players, asked Jackson to give an impromptu speech to the middle schoolers in attendance.

"A lot of you think that you've already made it," Jackson told the group. "Some of you are more talented than other guys right now, but once you get to a certain level, everybody is at the same talent level, and so the only thing that will allow you to separate from that other guy is how hard you work or how bad you want it."

Lucas is asked if having college guys talk at his camps is something he regularly does. "No," he says. "He's a kid that would be great for any basketball culture or community. He's a great piece for your team. He's a guy that you'd love to coach because you never have to worry where he is. He's always going to be where he's supposed to be."

Peyton Williams/Getty Images

Lucas believes Jackson's game is better suited for the NBA than college. The scout interviewed by Bleacher Report thinks Jackson is a future pro, but he'd benefit from staying in school so he can add strength and eventually become the go-to scorer in Chapel Hill.

"When you think of an upside guy, you normally think of a freak athlete, and this kid has just as much upside but he's got the game and just needs to build his body," the scout said.

Jackson could leave after this season, and most players will jump at the chance to get guaranteed money. He could also stay and eventually become a superstar, similar to Michigan State's Valentine. It's premature to say which way Jackson will go.

But his parents have always preached that there are no shortcuts, and the gist of Jackson's speech to the campers this summer is that you can't skip any steps along your basketball journey.

Pay your dues. Put in the work.

And when you're ready to shoot the three, let it fly.

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR. Recruit rankings provided by 247Sports.

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