Justin Jackson Has the North Carolina Brotherhood on the Brink of a Championship

He wasn't ready to leave the North Carolina brotherhood last year; now he's ready to win a title.
photo of Jason KingJason KingSenior Writer, B/R MagMarch 30, 2017

He knocked on the door around 10:30 p.m.—not long after the ACC Tournament semifinal loss to Duke at Madison Square Garden.

North Carolina's Justin Jackson was still in his standard postgame attire—gray and black suit, blue shirt and black pants—when he entered his parents' 15th-floor room at New York City's Four Seasons Hotel. Sitting on a bench at the foot of the bed, the 21-year-old leaned forward and buried his head in his hands.

"This is tough," he said.

Less than a week after being named ACC Player of the Year, Jackson had missed 16 of his 22 field goal attempts against Duke, his worst performance in a maddening four-game stretch in which he shot just 33.3 percent (20-of-60) from the field, including 7-of-31 from three-point range.

North Carolina's Justin Jackson shoots against Duke during the semifinals of the ACC tournament on March 10, 2017.
North Carolina's Justin Jackson shoots against Duke during the semifinals of the ACC tournament on March 10, 2017.(Getty Images)

It didn't take Lloyd and Sharon Jackson long to detect what was wrong with their son: He was trying to prove that he was worthy of his recent award.

"Don't worry about people thinking you're not deserving," Sharon said. "You've already proven yourself, otherwise you wouldn't have won the voting. Now celebrate it, embrace it.

"And start having fun again."

As they reflect on that evening more than two weeks later, Sharon and Lloyd are lounging in the dining room of their home just outside Overland Park, Kansas. A bundle of suitcases sit in the entryway, still unpacked from last week's trip to Memphis for the NCAA tournament's South Regional.

With 24 points in a Sweet 16 win over Butler and 19 against Kentucky in the Elite Eight, Jackson propelled the Tar Heels into their second straight Final Four. In four NCAA tournament games, the 6'8" small forward is averaging 19.8 points while shooting 46.8 percent from the field.

"That talk with my parents helped so much," Jackson says. "It changed everything."

Leaning on family members for support is nothing new for Jackson, who developed an especially close bond with his parents and three younger siblings while being homeschooled throughout most of his childhood.

That upbringing partially explains why Jackson has flourished in Chapel Hill, where an emphasis on brotherhood and family culture has helped shape North Carolina into one of college basketball's most consistently successful programs.

The North Carolina bench celebrates against Texas Southern during the first round of the 2017 NCAA tournament on March 17, 2017.
The North Carolina bench celebrates against Texas Southern during the first round of the 2017 NCAA tournament on March 17, 2017.(Getty Images)

While schools such as Kentucky, Duke and Kansas have become one-year pit stops for many of the country's top recruits, North Carolina hasn't had a one-and-done player in the past 10 years. The Tar Heels have appeared in four Final Fours and won six ACC titles during that span.

Player transfers—an intensifying trend in college basketball, with more than 700 in Division I last season—have also been virtually nonexistent at North Carolina, which hasn't lost a Tar Heel to another school since 2011.

"I never had my mind set on going one-and-done," says Jackson, a McDonald's All-American projected as a first-round NBA draft pick before his freshman season. "There are a lot of players who [think like that], but then they go in a different direction.

"People just fall in love with Carolina. Everyone falls in love with the program. It's a family, and sometimes it's hard to leave a family."

The loyalty has paid off for the Tar Heels, and for Jackson, who on March 24 was named a consensus first-team All-American. A junior who averages a team-high 18.2 points, Jackson is the 18th North Carolina player to achieve the honor, joining the likes of Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Rasheed Wallace and Antawn Jamison.

A detail view of Nike brand shoes Jackson wore during a game against Arkansas on March 19, 2017.
A detail view of Nike brand shoes Jackson wore during a game against Arkansas on March 19, 2017.(Getty Images)

"When you look at the names on that list, it's surreal," Sharon Jackson says. "It's just amazing to think back on all he's been through, on all the work it took to get here."

And, as Justin points out, all of the people who helped along the way.


When she opened his folders and thumbed through his schoolwork, Sharon Jackson noticed more than the good grades achieved by her third-grade son, Justin.

Almost every piece of paper featured doodles in the margins. Sheets from coloring books were mixed in with pages of math problems, and grammar assignments were decorated with scribbles and pictures.

Justin, she soon learned, was finishing his schoolwork 20 minutes after it was assigned and drawing throughout the rest of the class.

Realizing he could be doing more with his spare time, Sharon says she and her husband, Lloyd, "decided to take the plunge" and home-school Justin beginning in the fourth grade.

"We had some really good friends who had talked about homeschooling," Sharon says, "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 Justin enjoyed it. It just became what we do.''

Although he had occasional help from tutors, Justin was taught primarily by Sharon. One of the most important things in Justin's life is his faith, so he says he appreciated the way his mom taught basic curriculum "with a Christian twist."

Justin Jackson hugs his father, Lloyd Jackson, after defeating the Kentucky Wildcats during the NCAA tournament South Regional on March 26, 2017.
Justin Jackson hugs his father, Lloyd Jackson, after defeating the Kentucky Wildcats during the NCAA tournament South Regional on March 26, 2017.(Getty Images)

Jackson says the discipline and time-management skills he developed during his home-school years have helped him athletically and academically. Perhaps most importantly, though, they made him appreciate the value of having a close family.

"Life can get crazy on the college scene and also as a professional," Sharon says. "We wanted to make sure that, amid all his hopes and dreams, he'd always value having the support of a family. He knows that bond is something that will always be there no matter what."

The principles instilled by his parents—who moved the family from Texas to Kansas in 2015—also helped Jackson when it came time to choose a school.

Every time a college coach would leave his home after an official visit, his parents would ask Justin the same questions: Could you play pool with him on a Friday night? Would you feel comfortable showing up at his house to discuss a problem? Do you think he's a good person?

No one fit Justin's criteria more than North Carolina coach Roy Williams and his staff.

He loved how assistants such as C.B. McGrath and Eric Hoots brought their children around the program, and he was taken aback by all of the former stars who regularly return to Chapel Hill to cheer for the team while advising current players.

Shortly after committing, Jackson struck up friendships with ex-UNC stars such as Harrison Barnes, Marvin Williams and Kendall Marshall. They text each other regularly, with the elder players providing guidance to Jackson when he's going through a difficult stretch.

North Carolina head coach Roy Williams talks to Jackson during a game against Duke on March 4, 2017.
North Carolina head coach Roy Williams talks to Jackson during a game against Duke on March 4, 2017.(Getty Images)

Lloyd Jackson says he couldn't have been more impressed with Williams while shadowing him last fall as the coach dropped in on various tailgate parties before a UNC football game.

After watching Williams hobnob with everyone from the golf cart driver to the security guard, Lloyd posed a question.

"Don't you get tired of talking to people?" he asked.

Williams smiled.

"Absolutely not," he said. "I care about people. They mean something to me."

That's why Williams didn't stand in Justin's way last spring shortly after UNC's last-second loss to Villanova in the NCAA title game, when he decided to test the NBA waters and enter the draft. Williams wanted what was best for Jackson, even if it meant losing him.

In May, Jackson worked out before every professional team at the NBA combine in Chicago. He also had four individual workouts scheduled in the ensuing weeks. But after his first session with the Atlanta Hawks, he telephoned his parents.

"I'm not ready," he told them.

Deep down, Sharon Jackson knew why.

"I don't think he was ready to leave his family," she says. "I don't think he was ready to leave his team."


As Justin Jackson shoveled down his fourth serving of mashed potatoes, his father worried he would make himself ill. It was Thanksgiving Day in 2015, and Justin—appearing nauseated and fatigued—was basically forcing himself to eat.

"I'm so sick of food," he said.

Weight has long been a problem for Jackson. While his teammates gained muscle and bulk during his first two years in Chapel Hill, he couldn't seem to pack on any pounds. UNC strength coach Jonas Sahratian suggested he eat six-to-seven eggs each morning for breakfast, but that didn't work. There were gorge sessions with pizza and potatoes and other foods packed with carbohydrates, but they made him lethargic and miserable.

At the NBA combine in May, almost every team urged him to beef up his 193-pound frame.

Jackson shoots in the second half against Kentucky's Malik Monk (right) during the South Regional on March 26, 2017.
Jackson shoots in the second half against Kentucky's Malik Monk (right) during the South Regional on March 26, 2017.(Getty Images)

"It was a constant battle for a long time," Sharon Jackson says.

Last summer, though, things changed.

Instead of eating a few massive meals each day at random times, Justin developed a more structured approach. Now he consumes five smaller meals, all on a set schedule.

It's not uncommon for him to leave his apartment more than an hour before an 8 a.m. class to go to Breadmen's Restaurant for French toast, two eggs, two bacon strips and a sausage patty. Slices from Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom, enchiladas from Monterrey Mexican Restaurant, sandwiches from Jersey Mike's Subs and nuggets from Chick-fil-A…Jackson's debit card statement is filled with charges from restaurants throughout Chapel Hill.

"He's asked us to put more money in his account this year than he did his first two years combined," Lloyd chuckles. "If he didn't have to run so much each day, he'd weigh 260 pounds."

Instead, Jackson will settle for 210—nearly 20 pounds heavier than he was last spring.

The extra bulk has paid dividends on the court, where a bigger, stronger Jackson carries himself with more confidence and plays with more physicality.

Still, while he knew the additional weight would help, Jackson realized he needed to do more than eat to enhance his game. His scoring average from his freshman year (10.7 points) to his sophomore season (12.2) hardly changed. And his accuracy from three-point range did not improve, falling from a subpar 30.4 percent to an ugly 29.2.

"He realized his first two seasons were pretty stagnant," Sharon Jackson says. "He said, ‘I have to change something.'"

So Jackson altered his work ethic. Or rather, he enhanced it.

North Carolina and Butler players compete for a rebound during the NCAA tournament South Regional on March 24, 2017.
North Carolina and Butler players compete for a rebound during the NCAA tournament South Regional on March 24, 2017.(Getty Images)

It wasn't that he had given poor effort in the past. But with stars Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige graduating, he knew he'd be counted on to set an example and provide leadership. If the Tar Heels were to return to the Final Four, it was imperative that Jackson be more productive offensively and shoot at a higher clip.

"Having Marcus and Brice there my first two years, it's human nature to fall back a little bit," Jackson says. "Now, coming into this year, there was a little more pressure on my shoulders. That's the position I love to be in."

Partly because he was home-schooled, Sharon said her son was often viewed as different during his high school years. She jokes that people "thought he was a little weird" because he kept to himself.

She encouraged him to not to be afraid to be different at North Carolina. Declining an invitation to hang out with friends to work on your game, she preached, isn't always a bad decision. If anything, it could set an example.

That's why Jackson's parents were so impressed last fall when they'd call him at 11 p.m. and he'd answer from the Dean Smith Center, where he and roommate Luke Maye were taking extra shots. Night after night during the offseason—unless they were at the movies, which was common—Jackson and Maye strolled to the gym to hoist three-pointers and mid-range jumpers.

"A year ago, his dream was on the edge of his fingertips. Now it's in the palm of his hand." — Lloyd Jackson on his son, Justin

The hard work has resulted in Jackson posting a career-best mark (38 percent) from beyond the arc. And in last week's Elite Eight victory over Kentucky, it was Maye who hit the game-winning 18-footer with 0.3 seconds remaining on the clock. Lloyd Jackson was moved when he congratulated Luke, a former walk-on, later that evening.

"Mr. Jackson," Maye said, "I owe a lot of that to Justin. He's the one that got me in the gym every night and prepared me for this moment."

Luke's heroic shot earned him Most Outstanding Player honors at the South Regional. Otherwise, Jackson would've been a shoo-in for the honor. His 19.8-point scoring average in the NCAA tournament and his defense on Kentucky standout Malik Monk are the main reasons the top-seeded Tar Heels advanced to take on No. 3 seed Oregon in the semifinals Saturday in Phoenix.

Jackson's strides haven't gone unnoticed by NBA scouts. Considered a fringe first-round pick a year ago, Jackson is now projected by DraftExpress to be the 12th selection this summer.

"Before the season I told him him, 'Son, I hope and pray that you have a tough decision to make at the end of the year,'" Lloyd says. "A year ago, his dream was on the edge of his fingertips. Now it's in the palm of his hand."

Jackson reacts after a play in the first half against Kentucky on March 26, 2017.
Jackson reacts after a play in the first half against Kentucky on March 26, 2017.(Getty Images)

Jackson, though, isn't concerned about the NBA draft or even the national championship game. Not yet, at least.

When his parents FaceTimed him Monday night, he was folding laundry and thinking about Saturday's game against Oregon. The following afternoon, the Associated Press announced Jackson as a first-team All-American—just like the National Association of Basketball Coaches had done the week prior.

Sharon sent Justin a congratulatory text shortly after hearing the news. Moments later, she remembered that conversation from weeks earlier back at the Four Seasons, the one about living up to other people's expectations. Sharon picked up her phone.

"No pressure!" she wrote to her son.

The response was immediate, and it made her smile.

"None whatsoever."

Jason King is a senior writer for B/R Mag, based in Kansas. A former staff writer at ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports and the Kansas City Star, King's work has received mention in the popular book series The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter: @JasonKingBR.

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