When the NCAA Tournament pairings are revealed Sunday, Justin Jackson will be paying particularly close attention.
North Carolina is his school, Chapel Hill is his town. And those were his Tar Heels who sent him off to the NBA draft last summer with the feel of the 2017 national championship trophy stuck to his hands.
“The best feeling you can imagine,” the Kings rookie said. “The journey we had from the year before (losing to Villanova at the buzzer), to make it back and then win, is indescribable.”
While college isn’t for everyone – check with those one-and-done prospects, folks – you get no complaints from Jackson. Besides collecting a championship, he left campus with a stack of awards that included being named a consensus All-American and Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year.
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The next phase of his journey has been something of a transition from Carolina blue to rookie blues, though only in a traditional sense. Similar to most of his first-year teammates, the lanky 6-foot-8 small forward has had moments where the Kings look pretty smart for the draft-day trade that enabled them to get Jackson at No. 15 and Harry Giles at No. 20, and other occasions when he can’t make a shot, leaving the powers-that-be straining to understand how his offensive skills transfer to the NBA.
Jackson is working hard on that one, too.
“I’m still trying to figure that out,” he said. “If I need to be a cutter, be a cutter. I’m just trying to do everything to the best of my ability. If I need to be a defensive guy, then I’ll be a defensive guy. If I get three shots, I’ll try to make two of them. Whatever it might be.”
Jackson, 22, is among the Kings who should benefit enormously from the organization’s decision to prioritize development and keep the younger players on the floor in the closing weeks. Before the last six weeks, he had been plugged into a variety of roles, as a starter, as a reserve, as a DNP for nine games, while also spending time with the G League affiliate in Reno.
His return to the starting lineup continues to afford an opportunity to develop a rhythm and comfort level with young teammates De’Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere. Predictably, of course, the end result has been uneven. At times that rhythm shrieks like a needle weaving across a vinyl record, with a lack of pace, too much dribbling, too many turnovers and too little crisp passing. Other sequences offer glimpses of promise: the ball moves, offense flows, the Kings capitalize on the break.
The Kings executives say Jackson’s role in all this is to sweat the basic small forward stuff. Convert the corner 3-pointer. Space the floor. Move the ball. Close out on deep jumpers. Cut backdoor and seize the openings. Defend aggressively and rebound adequately. But keep it simple.
“Our job is to ignore the white noise and ask, ‘What is it that you saw from Justin in college and has he gotten better?’ ” said assistant general manager Brandon Williams. “While we all want him to improve his 3-point shooting, where he has stood out has been as a cutter, as a scorer on backdoor cuts. He is not just another pick-and-roll player. As our guys become better passers, that will help Justin in other areas, because he’ll get the ball in the right spots and on time. Then as he gets stronger, I think he will become a good defender, too.”
Jackson has converted 51 percent of his two-point field-goal attempts and only 29.2 percent of shots from beyond the arc, many of which are clean looks.
A fluid, graceful athlete, he can find open shots, but he is no stranger to concerns about his jumper. He considered entering the draft after his sophomore season, but returned for another year after receiving a lukewarm response from NBA types – a wise move, as it turned out.
After tinkering with his mechanics and learning to bring the ball out of his hands quicker and more cleanly, his 3-point percentage improved from 29 to 37 percent his final season, when he set a school record with 105 3-pointers. His pre-draft status was further enhanced by his impressive NCAA Tournament performances, including a 16-point effort against Gonzaga for the championship.
“We like what we’re starting to see from Justin,” Williams continued. “I hear people yelling, ‘Put it on the floor,’ but that’s not what he does. He gets it to our guys – Fox, Bogi – who make plays, and he moves without the ball, and as he gains confidence, you’ll see that corner 3 start to go down.”
The soft-spoken Jackson, who has a thoughtful, cerebral presence, never seems to have a bad day. If you didn’t have a box score in hand, you would never know he had a bad game. In the gym, he responds by launching 300 jumpers daily and studying game film. Away from the arena, he leans on his religion and his wife.
As for his Tar Heels? They still make him smile.
“I’m curious to see what kind of run they make this year,” he said, nodding. “Playing on that stage was awesome.”