CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) There’s nothing complicated about how North Carolina’s Justin Jackson dramatically improved his 3-point range and scoring output to make himself a candidate for Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year .
No, the 6-foot-8 junior said it’s simply a revamped mentality after lessons learned from workouts for NBA teams last summer.
”I realized how hard you really have to work to be at that level,” Jackson said in an interview with The Associated Press. ”That’s a job, guys are trying to get checks for their families. So you literally have to put in as much time as you possibly have at working on this part of your job.”
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Entering Saturday’s rivalry game against No. 17 Duke, Jackson is averaging 18.4 points for program’s highest scoring average in eight years while shooting 39 percent from 3-point range for the fifth-ranked Tar Heels (25-6, 13-4).
Compare that to his first two seasons, when he averaged 11.5 points and shot 29.7 percent from behind the arc.
Jackson’s growth has helped the Tar Heels get within a win of claiming the ACC regular-season title outright – they already have the top seed for next week’s tournament – and contend for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It also emphatically answered the preseason question of who would become UNC’s go-to guy after the departures of Associated Press All-American Brice Johnson and four-year starter Marcus Paige from last year’s NCAA runner-up.
This was never about the home-schooled McDonald’s All-American from Tomball, Texas being lazy before begrudgingly developing a modest work ethic. Instead, it was a player who understood he needed to do more – more shooting in the gym, more focused work in the weight room – to go from good to great.
”Before this year, I would be OK with, `OK I got in the gym today once,”’ Jackson said. ”For me, this offseason, I got in the gym at least two, usually three, times a day. . The amount of time I put in, I knew it would start translating. I guess it kind of did.”
Jackson made himself eligible for the NBA draft after last season, taking advantage of new rules making it easier for players to test the waters and work out for teams while maintaining college eligibility as long as they don’t hire an agent. He could take the same path again this year. He is projected as a first-round pick, but not necessarily a lottery pick.
His father, Lloyd, called the NBA workouts ”the best thing that ever happened to him.”
”He had to hear and see from someone – whether it’s scouts, GMs, because he sat down with 20-plus teams,” he said. ”And it kept coming back to the same thing over and over: you’ve got to knock down shots, you’ve got to knock down shots.
”At some point, you hear that enough and either you start putting in the work you think you need to or you shut down. . He really gathered a lot from the standpoint of what it really meant to be a professional athlete. So going through the process, it helped him really take a gauge of, `Yeah, you’re working, but you’re not.’ And that motivated him.”
Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams sees it, too.
”If you could weigh the amount of sweat that’s dripped off of him, he’s had several pounds of sweat he’s invested,” Williams said. ”Everybody thinks they’re working hard, but nobody’s really working anywhere close to what they can do until somebody pushes them or they see the difference. And I think Justin sees the difference.”
The 3-point shot is obvious change. Jackson has made 84 after making 63 during his first two seasons combined. He has hit at least four 3s 11 times this year after doing so once in the previous two years, and he’s flirting with the program’s single-season record for made 3s per game (roughly 2.7).
Williams has long said there was nothing wrong with Jackson’s shot.
”I think it feels different just because of how many reps I’ve gotten up before the shot I shoot in the game,” Jackson said. ”Before that, I’ve gotten up so many shots that it just kind of muscle memory.”
And that has led more confidence, even swagger, for a player who formerly had trouble moving past struggles and overthinking on the court.
There’s no hesitation anymore.
”He’s in constant movement, knock-down shooter but he has floaters and runs,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. ”He never seems to get tired. Beautiful kid. … He’s as good a player as we’ve played against this year, and that caliber of player, they’re tough to guard.”
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary in Durham contributed to this report.
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