Thanks to an NCAA rule change this season, underclassmen are allowed to declare early for the NBA draft, go through the evaluation process and then choose to go pro or return to school (if they haven’t signed with an agent). From now until May 25, which is decision day, SI will periodically weigh in on the most interesting decisions left to be made. Up next is North Carolina sophomore small forward Justin Jackson.
Season review: Voted to the ACC All-Freshman team in 2014–15, Jackson followed it up with an honorable mention All-ACC sophomore season in which he finished fourth on the Tar Heels in scoring at 12.2 points per game. He also chipped in 3.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists per contest and reached double-digit scoring in five of six NCAA tournament games as North Carolina advanced to the national championship game before losing to Villanova.
For the second straight year, Jackson showed notable improvement as the year went on. Heading into the Feb. 9 game at Boston College he was shooting just 46.4% from the field, 63.8% at the line and 20.3% from three-point range, leading to his being benched by coach Roy Williams for what is still the only time, other than on Senior Day, in his Tar Heels career. Yet beginning with that game, in which he scored 20 points, Jackson shot 47.0%/71.1%/39.3% over North Carolina’s final 17 games.
The Case for College: A 6'8" forward, Jackson can score, but he lacks the complete game of an NBA wing. Despite his late surge, he hit just 35 of his 120 attempts overall from three-point land last season, a paltry 29.2% clip. Jackson also managed a free-throw rate of just 23.1% and hit only 66.7% of his foul shots. Without consistent three-point buckets or free throws, the bulk of Jackson’s production came on two-point shots, of which he hit 53.7% last season. NBA teams might like his midrange game—highlighted by an effective baseline floater—but in a league dominated by three-point shooting and players who can attack the rim, they will likely view his struggles from deep and at getting fouled as drawbacks. Another season on campus, especially one in which he figures to be the team’s primary scoring option in the wake of the graduations of Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, could pay dividends for Jackson’s NBA stock.
The Case for the NBA: Jackson, once a consensus top-10 recruit and a McDonald’s All-American, has been talked about as an NBA prospect since even before he arrived in Chapel Hill, and the fact that he earned an invite to the NBA draft combine this month suggests teams are still intrigued by his potential. For two years Jackson has played a big role in the Tar Heels’ offense. Last year he ranked second on the team in percent of minutes used (70.9) and boasted an offensive efficiency rating of 119.0. Jackson can play big in big moments, as he shot 54.2% in NCAA tournament play, including 47.4% from beyond the arc. He also takes care of the ball (2.7 assist-to-turnover ratio) and boasts a turnover rate of 10.6, which ranked 98th nationally.
Overall Jackson is an effective scorer who also knows how to make plays for his teammates. And after starring for ACC regular season and tournament champions in a league that sent six teams to the Sweet 16, the would-be junior knows what it’s like to play with and against top-tier talent. While Jackson’s return would make North Carolina a potential Final Four team again, the Tar Heels will likely have a hard time replicating that success after losing Johnson and Paige.
Mock Draft rankings: SI (first round only): Unranked; Draft Express: No. 63; NBAdraft.net: No. 45
Final verdict: Jackson isn’t a complete NBA wing without a three-point shot and the ability to drive and draw fouls. He should return to school for his junior season.