North Carolina has all of the components of a team that could make another run in the NCAA tournament: a clever pass-first point guard who can run pick-and-roll and shoot threes (Joel Berry), talent and experience in the post positions (Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks), athletes that can defend multiple positions across one possession (Theo Pinson) and a wing scorer (Justin Jackson).
It’s that wing scorer title that has some followers of the ACC, and fans of UNC, slightly concerned, though. Is this the year that Justin Jackson breaks out?
Jackson, during his two seasons in Chapel Hill, has been a very productive player. He’s played in every game he was eligible for at UNC — 78 games, making 75 starts. The Tar Heels have won 59 of those games, and an ACC title during his tenure at North Carolina. Jackson has already scored 895 career points (11.5 per game); he should eclipse the 1,000-points benchmark before ACC play fires up. However, Jackson’s inconsistent shooting stroke from beyond the arc, and inability to draw contact and get to the free throw line, are areas for concern. If the junior from Texas can improve in at least one of those skills, though, look out — he could become one of the more prolific scorers in all of college basketball.
For two years now, a great deal has been made about the lack of a three point shot from Jackson, which was something that he was supposedly known for during his prep All-American days. While he’s had his moments from beyond the arc, including during the NCAA Tournament when he’s gone 14-of-26 (53.8 percent), Jackson’s shooting touch has left a lot to be desired.
At UNC, Jackson has played with multiple gravity-commanding big men — Hicks, Brice Johnson — and good point guards. He usually gets quality catch-and-shoot looks; these are the type of threes Roy Williams and his staff should encourage Jackson to continue launching. But after shooting just 30.4 percent on threes as a freshman, Jackson attempted an even higher rate of threes as a sophomore (28.8 percent), but shot a lower percentage — 29.2 percent. It’s a bit troubling when, as a sophomore, he attempted more 3-pointers and free throws, yet saw his true shooting percentage dip from 54.7 percent (a good number) to 52.8 percent. That’s not the type of regression we should be seeing.
The free throws are another area of concern. For all of his woes from distance, Jackson has proven to be a reliably good shooter inside the arc. Last season, Jackson connected on 159 of his 296 two-point attempts (53.7 percent), which is darn good, and a high number than Duke’s Grayson Allen (50.2 percent). Here’s the rub, though: Jackson has superior length and a knack for scoring around the basketball, but he almost never gets to the free throw line, which should be an easy place for him to gather points.
Jackson attempted 96 free throws as a sophomore — three more than his rookie season output. However, in 2015-16, he played more minutes and in more games. In actuality, his free throw attempt rate declined.
- 2014-15: 28.3 percent
- 2015-16: 23.1 percent
In both of his seasons at UNC, Jackson as averaged 2.4 free throw attempts per game. In those 78 games, he’s never attempted more than eight free throws. In 47 of his career games (60.2 percent), Jackson has attempted two or fewer free throws; he’s attempted zero free throws in 17 games (21.8 percent). That means in more than one out of every five career games Jackson’s played in at UNC, he’s never gone to the free throw line.
He could also stand to improve his accuracy from the stripe, too. Last season, Jackson shot just 66.7 percent on free throws.
During his sophomore season at NC State, when he won ACC Player of the Year, T.J. Warren — another gifted small forward scorer — had 13 games of eight or more free throws, including seven when he launched 10 or more. That season, Warren had a free throw attempt rate of 34.7 percent — 11.6 percent higher than Jackson’s sophomore campaign.
Last season at Clemson, Jaron Blossomgame evolved into of of the league’s best players, and part of that maturation came with an increase in attempts from deep. After shooting 109 threes his first two seasons combined, Blossomgame launched 102 as a junior, making 45 of them (44.1 percent). His progression in efficiency didn’t come just from beyond the arc, though: he got to the foul line as well. He shot 170 free throws, and posted an attempt rate of 43.4 percent — nearly doubling Jackson’s total.
These may seem like two convenient examples, but they’re two players that are alike in size with Jackson, and have some other similar characteristics. Jackson was a blue chip recruit; can he take the proverbial next step like these two players? Duke should be the best team in the ACC in 2017, but if North Carolina gets Good Justin Jackson, they’ll have as much firepower as anyone else in America.
Jackson attempted 24 more 3-pointers than free throws last season. I’m all for chucking threes, but that balance is out of wack. He has to get to the line more. Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige are gone, and Jackson will be asked to carry a larger load offensively for the Heels — as should Hicks, Berry and Meeks. Jackson had a usage rate, per Ken Pomeroy, of 20.4 percent last season, which is right around average. That number will increase, and when it does, the hope would be for Jackson to draw more fouls, too.
We can all agree on the baseline notion that Jackson is a good offensive player; he rarely turns it over, which is evidenced by his sub-11 percent turnover rate (10.6 percent, per Ken Pom). He’s also not a ball-stopper, which is critical; in fact, he’s actually a pretty good passer. Assists aren’t the only statistic used to measure passing ability, but they matter, and Jackson’s solid in this regard. He averaged 2.8 assister per game last season (5.6 per 100 possessions).
The Tomball, Texas native (the same city that Chicago Bulls star and Olympian Jimmy Butler hails from) posted an assist rate of 16.3 percent, which was the fifth highest number on UNC’s team last season — and the third highest among players that played more than 50 percent of the team’s available minutes (behind only Berry and Paige). UNC will need more of that this season, especially without Paige’s playmaking.
Last season, en route to the Final Four, the Tar Heels led the nation in offensive efficiency: 123.1 points per 100 possessions, which is smoking. North Carolina has frequently posted a top 10 offense under Roy Williams; if they’re going to do that again, though, and make March a month to remember, they’ll need Jackson to improve in these two major areas on offense.