2016-17 Season Stats:
45% from the field
38% from three
75% from the free-throw line
Weight: 193 pounds Height w/shoes: 6′8″. Wingspan: 6'10.8″. Max Vert: 34.5"
Have you ever tried out for a school musical? Were you really bad at singing? If that's the case, then you likely heard something along the lines of, "Well here's what you can work on. We'd like to have you back next time after you've worked on these points." Though, if you're really bad at singing, you probably heard a version with a little more, uh, candor. Justin Jackson basically did this to himself last year, and it might have saved his career.
Okay, that's an exaggeration. Justin Jackson was always going to be a good NBA player. By declaring for the NBA Draft last year, going through the Combine and workouts, and then removing his name after getting feedback, Jackson set himself up to have a career season in his junior year of college. After this whole process from last summer, he returned to Chapel Hill to the tune of a massive boost in stats all across the board. His progression from last year to this year truly is impressive, and it shows much about the kind of player, and person, he is.
Most notably, Jackson's points (from 12.2 to 18.3) and 3-point shooting percentage (29% to 38%) leapt remarkably from last season to this one. Guess what he was told by scouts on what to improve after the NBA Draft process. No, really, take a stab in the dark. Yeah, scoring consistency and shooting.
Jackson's improvement in those areas show more than just improved percentages. This kind of work ethic translates well to the next level as well as his ability to take criticism and channel it properly. He went from a sub-30% shooter (pretty awful) to an above-average 38% shooter from deep. Although some of his other percentages dipped (there's a drop from last year of 54% down to 51% on 2-pointers), it's encouraging to see his mechanics change to the point of being a reliable 3-point shooter. It's not a fluke; he's averaging four more attempts from three than last year. Let that sink in: Jackson improved his 3-point percentage by 9% while attempting that shot four more times. That's incredible.
His shooting mechanics play a big role in this, and those mechanics are also why Justin Jackson's trend toward a serviceable shooter is not temporary. One of the most consistent parts of his jumpshot that have led to this transformation is how he catches the ball. He used to catch the ball flat-footed(-ly?), and this made it difficult for a clean release, especially in traffic. This season, though, he's made sure to hop on the catch (one of the fundamentals of a sound and replicable jumper) in order to establish a clear rhythm.
Too add to Jackson's game is his relentless driving to the rim. With his addition of a brand new jumper, he now has freedom to attack closeouts (though he does settle for contested 3-pointers on more than a few occasions. Jackson goes after it on offense, dipping his head down and going straight to the rim. It'll be tougher for him at the next level against stronger defenders, but as he builds muscle, he'll be able to keep the same habits.
An underrated part of Jackson's game is his passing. He only averaged 2.8 assists per game both this season and last, but he's a deceptively good passer. He makes the "one more" pass effectively in the offense, and his vision in transition is good for a guy his size. Speaking of size, he has a really great frame for a prototypical NBA forward. While he probably won't have the size to play the big forward position in small lineups for an extended time, if he works on his defense, it might work on the right team. He rebounds well, and he improved on that this year by adding about one more rebound per game.
Justin Jackson still has consistency issues, though not as bad as year's past. He can still float around on offense at times. Also, while he has great tools for defense, like many young players, he gets lazy. He gets stuck on picks, ball watches, and loses his man from time to time. Can that improve? Of course. Another thing that might keep him from being a surefire lottery pick is his age. Freshmen are all the rage this year, so a team might hesitate to pick him too early.
Whatever team does select him, though, will be getting a self-aware player with a history of working on shortcomings successfully. How many times have we talked about players who "need to add a jumper this summer" for just about every summer they've been in the league? If what we saw from Justin Jackson this season is any indication, we won't have the same problem with him. He might not set the world on fire with flashy handles or his point forwardness, but any team getting Jackson will be getting an NBA-ready prospect with great size and scoring ability. Every team could use one of those.