UNC Basketball: Justin Jackson’s strong start to 2016 season

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports /

Justin Jackson had very high expectations entering his junior season, and so far he has not disappointed.

With the departure of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, two of North Carolina’s leading scorers from last year, someone had to step up and be more aggressive this season.

Through the first 13 games, that guy has been Justin Jackson.

The 6-foot-8, 210-pound wing is averaging 16.7 points per game, compared to the previous season where he scored only 12.2 points per game. Jackson is also averaging 12.6 field goal attempts per game, two more than last season.

In his third year, Jackson is shooting an impressive 37.5 percent from three-point range, an astounding eight percent greater than his sophomore season.

Not to mention his free throw percentage, which has shot up a whole ten percent from last year.

As you can see, the list goes on and on and on, which begs the question…

What has sparked Jackson’s tremendous improvement?

At first glance, Jackson’s improvement is simply due to increased experience.

However, there are many other variables that could be contributing to the small forward’s developments.

The lack of a leader on the team most likely has something to do with Jackson’s emergence, as Paige and Johnson were indisputably the alphas of last year’s squad.

"“Not having Brice [Johnson] and Marcus [Paige], it definitely leaves a hole, so I’m going to try to be as aggressive as possible,”"

With their absence, the Tar Heels needed someone to step up, and Jackson has willingly taken that role.

Another variable that could have boosted Jackson’s game so far this season is the heart-breaking loss to Villanova in last year’s national title game.

Justin Jackson before the championship game:

"“I don’t think we need to win because of what people might be saying about North Carolina basketball, I think we need to win because we want to win.”"

After the loss on April 4th, 2016, Jackson and his teammates have been out for revenge. They’re on a mission to purge a soft reputation and fight their way back to a shot at that one shining moment, and Justin Jackson is leading that charge.

Jackson’s recent success can also be attributed to his underwhelming responses at last year’s NBA Draft Combine.

The NBA hopeful wing had interviews with multiple NBA teams following the combine where he could ask questions and get loads of feedback; sometimes unwanted. In fact, when asked if the feedback could be brutally honest, here’s what Jackson had to say via Inside Carolina:

"“It was a lot… The biggest was probably the Warriors, they were very brutal, I think I might’ve said five words that whole entire time and it was a 30 minute segment.”"

It’s always difficult to take criticism, but to be criticized by one of the best basketball teams in the world is something totally different. However, Jackson wasn’t going to let those words of wisdom go to waste:

"“To hear stuff like that, I didn’t take it as anything that would hurt my feelings or anything like that, I just took it as okay, thats what I’ve got to get better at.”"

Sure enough, the 6-foot-8 junior took that critique to heart. Three of Jackson’s main weaknesses highlighted after the combine were his aggressiveness, ability to draw contact in the lane, and three point shooting.

The Tomball, Texas native now has drawn the third most fouls on the team behind big men Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley, proving his willingness to draw fouls.

Likewise, Jackson has taken the most shots on the team by a considerable amount as well as improving his three point percentage by nearly 10 percent.

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No matter what triggered Jackson’s impressive beginning to the season, the Tar Heels are benefiting all the more from it. His new found assertiveness could be just what the Tar Heels need to make another deep tournament run.

However, not only is Jackson helping this year’s team, he is also aiding the recruiting effort. Major prospect Kevin Knox, a 5-star small forward ranked 7th overall in the class of 2017, is watching the junior forward and observing how he is used in North Carolina’s system.

Because Knox and Jackson are such similar players, the high school phenom is scrutinizing Jackson’s performance in order to see how he would be used in this particular structure.

Many believe that without Knox, the upcoming class of freshmen could be lackluster, leaving Roy Williams and the rest of the Carolina coaching staff with a team that may not live up to their typical expectations.

So far, Knox must be pleased.

A lot is riding on Jackson’s performance, with his current team’s success and the recruitment of future talents.

Now all that the Tar Heels can hope for is that he can keep it up.