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How Kings rookie Justin Jackson keeps his joy during an up-and-down season

Kings forward Justin Jackson listens to coach Dave Joerger during a game in December. Jackson has started games for the Kings, but he’s also spent time in the G League.
Kings forward Justin Jackson listens to coach Dave Joerger during a game in December. Jackson has started games for the Kings, but he’s also spent time in the G League. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Justin Jackson’s rookie season could be described as a study in agony and ecstasy.

The forward from North Carolina has gone from starter to sitting out entire games and has even been assigned to the Reno Bighorns of the G League.

Jackson, the 15th overall pick in last year’s NBA draft, was back in the starting lineup for Friday’s loss at Memphis and back on campus Saturday to see his No. 44 jersey honored and put in the rafters along with 51 other former Tar Heels.

Jackson said it was an “honor” and “blessing” to be recognized by his college. As for his rookie season, Jackson has learned a lot.

“Never lose confidence in yourself, never stop working hard, never lose that work ethic even when you might not be playing, not playing much or whatever it is, just keep it going,” Jackson said. “Don’t ever let anybody take your joy, take the enjoyment out of the game that you play because at the end of the day it’s a game that we love, we just happen to be getting paid for it. So just continue to work on yourself every day (and) don’t ever stop, no matter what the circumstances are.”

Jackson is still working to become a more permanent fixture in the Kings’ rotation during a season of ups and downs.

He was the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, a reason North Carolina honored him, and part of a national championship team last season.

However, his first NBA season has been nondescript in a year where many rookies have stood out.

Jackson is averaging 4.9 points, 1.7 rebounds and 17.1 minutes in 31 games. Even as the Kings have shifted their focus toward young players, it hasn’t meant Jackson is guaranteed 30-plus minutes a game.

“There’s a bunch of other rookies who are playing really, really well,” Jackson said. “But for me it’s just focusing on myself because at the end of the day I’m not in the same situation they are. There are a whole bunch of things that just aren’t the same, so (I’m) just focusing on me and being the best possible player I can be.”

Kings coach Dave Joerger has spoken highly of Jackson since before the regular season, when he showed signs he might be a contributor during summer league.

Joerger has kept the long-term approach when dealing with the young players this season.

“(Jackson) continues to work,” Joerger said. “He’s a good guy, works hard, just learning the speed of the game, where he can find shots and where he can have an impact.”

Kings forward Vince Carter, who was a star at North Carolina in the 1990s, said he’s talked to Jackson about staying positive. While this hasn’t been the ideal start to Jackson’s career, it doesn’t have to define his future in the NBA.

“That’s one thing we talked about earlier in the year,” Carter said. “With his work ethic and his ability, he’s going to be around a long time. The beginning is always the toughest, but think back to when you were a freshman at Carolina. Yeah, he played, but he didn’t have the freedom that he had later. He’s grasping that.”

Jackson admits maintaining his confidence this season hasn’t been easy.

“It’s very easy to lose that,” he said.

Jackson turns to two things dear to him, family and faith, to keep the right mindset.

“For me, my wife (Brooke) is huge,” Jackson said. “She keeps me levelheaded, laughing, happy all the time, so that’s huge. But outside of that, it’s continue to pray. For me, it’s always been my faith, just trying to stay rooted in that and knowing basketball is a great game but ... it’s nothing compared to (God’s) plans.”

Jackson also looks at some of his better games from this season as sources of motivation and reminders that he can succeed at this level.

So even though things haven’t worked out the way he’d like, Jackson believes he has the ability to last in the NBA while still trying to improve.

“I look at a lot of the good games that I’ve had and also the bad things that I can do better,” Jackson said. “I look back at the Philly and OKC games back at home. Offensively, those were two really good games for me. Detroit was a good game defensively for me. So looking back at those games, definitely just try to build off those and whenever I get the opportunity, have more and more games like that.”

Jason Jones: @mr_jasonjones, read more about the team at sacbee.com/kings.

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