Big Shot: Justin Jackson is hoping to provide North Carolina with a happier ending this March

Balance will only get you so far. To advance deep into the tournament, every team needs that one player willing—and able—to take over when it matters most. Enter Justin Jackson. 
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March came in with Justin Jackson on the lam: Around 7 a.m. on the first day of college basketball’s most frenetic month, North Carolina’s leading scorer absconded to Greenville, S.C., to watch his girlfriend, Brooke Copeland, and Florida win their first-round game in the SEC tournament. Jackson planned to hit the road immediately after the matinee matchup, but a storm blew through the area. Hail and heavy rains forced him to wait out the deluge. He finally departed around 8 p.m., and soon after, a text message from teammate Kennedy Meeks arrived: Are you trying to get shots up?

Jackson replied that he was on his way. After a 235-mile drive that included a stop for dinner, he reached Chapel Hill around midnight. Meeks and senior guard Nate Britt met him at the Smith Center, and as one long day spilled into the next, the junior small forward hoisted jumpers until 1:30 a.m. He woke to make an 8 a.m. facilities management class. Madness, indeed. “Most people would settle—like, O.K., I’m good,” says Jackson, who soon thereafter was named ACC player of the year. “I was a little tired. But while I was in here, I wasn’t that tired. Because I just wanted to try to get better.”

The Tar Heels are stacked with talent, but, like the 67 other ­entrants in the Big Dance, they need a clutch scorer to get the critical buckets that help a team advance. It could be argued that no program understands this dynamic better. North Carolina saw its own miracle shot—a double-pump, game-tying three-pointer from guard Marcus Paige—upstaged by a buzzer-beating, trophy-snatching bomb from Villanova forward Kris Jenkins in last April’s epic championship game. In pursuit of happier endings this spring, the top seed in the South region will count on Jackson, a sinewy 6' 8" gunslinger who had career highs in scoring (18.1 points per game) and three-point shooting (37.7%), to continue to take and make shots at all hours.

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Jackson’s ascension to a starring role has been hard-earned. Though he was a five-star prospect and McDonald’s All-American from Tomball, Texas, he shot just 29.7% from deep over his first two seasons in Chapel Hill. As his visit to the Smith Center suggests, a go-to guy isn’t built in a day (or a night). “Anybody can go in and try to put up shots,” junior guard Joel Berry II says. “It does no good if they’re missing. Him being more aggressive and more efficient—that’s why he’s having a great year.”

The 2016 championship game defeat in Houston’s NRG Stadium, located just 40 miles from Jackson’s hometown, gutted him and everyone else on the team. “That was the worst feeling we’ve had in basketball,” says Jackson, who scored nine points in the loss. Though he hit three of four treys against Villanova, he was dismayed by what had come before that night: a season during which he averaged 12.2 points (fourth on the team) but made just 35 of 120 long-range shots. In the ensuing weeks North Carolina coaches dissected film clips of Jackson’s jumper, looking for some mechanical glitch to address. They couldn’t find one. What he needed, they realized, was to build confidence through repetition. “When you come out of high school, you’re well recognized, you’re pretty cocky,” coach Roy Williams says. “But if you shoot 29% for two years, that’s called reality. I don’t care how much you think you’re working. It’s not working.”

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After attending the NBA draft combine last May and electing to remain in school, Jackson began a grueling off-season routine. He aimed to alter his team’s fortunes by first altering his own.

A typical day started at 7 a.m. with North Carolina strength coach Jonas Sahratian, part of a program that would help Jackson go from 193 pounds at the combine to 210 at the start of the 2016–17 season. Williams says Jackson tended to wear down physically early in his career; the added bulk would help him maintain consistency throughout the grind of the season. Then, after pumping iron, Jackson would pump out shots all day long.

His morning shootaround usually focused on attempts that flowed from a particular movement, and the format for the drills came from his pre-draft visit with the Hawks: feeding the post and then relocating to the corner; coming off a down screen for a look from the wing; trailing the play and receiving a drop-off pass for a long-range bomb. “I felt the shots in that workout could translate pretty well to what I do in our offense,” Jackson says.

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A second shooting shift followed midday pickup games, typically featuring stationary attempts from seven spots. The inspiration for this session came from assistant Hubert Davis, a former Tar Heels marksman. Jackson had to hit eight of 10 shots before moving to the next location. Occasionally he would raise the bar to 10 out of 12, as Paige had done toward the end of his career. For his third and final workout of the day, Jackson usually met with his two closest friends on campus—forward Luke Maye and head manager Chase ­Bengel—around 8:30 p.m. This allowed Jackson to address any nagging problems from the previous sessions. It also enabled the trio to perfectly time their arrival for Old Chicago’s $3 pub pizza special, which starts at 10.

Basketball talk was mostly off-limits as they wolfed down slices, and Jackson gave little thought to what he might do the next day. “I’m not that good of a planner,” he concedes. He and Bengel discussed school or their girlfriends. Maye talked about his ­business-school application. Sometimes the group just watched whatever game was on the TV screens. It was the one thing on the schedule that Jackson didn't approach with a strict focus.

Even after the season started, Jackson kept up a special schedule of workouts that usually lasted 45 minutes, an hour tops. “I know what I need to get better at, I know what I need to do, so I’m going to get in there and I’m going to do it,” he says. If, however, he felt he needed to tinker with something, he would stay longer. After tying a season low with seven points at Virginia on Feb. 27, Jackson and Bengel convened at the Smith Center the next night. Because Jackson couldn’t meet his exacting standards in the spot-by-spot progression, they shot for two hours. “That’s what Justin does—gets back in the gym, gets back on the horse,” Bengel says. “We were going to stay there until he finished.”

Says Jackson, “I would always say there’s no success without struggle. Even through those nights when you feel like you can’t throw the ball in the ocean, you know you’re still getting better.”

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It’s not as though Jackson didn’t care about getting better before this season, but he wasn’t nearly as assertive in all phases of the game. “It’s more like he was hoping things went well,” junior forward Theo Pinson says. This new routine was simply Jackson’s way of leaving nothing to chance, from June all the way through March. In the regular season, according to Synergy Sports, he was rewarded with spikes in several key categories: adjusted field goal percentage for overall spot-up scenarios (41.4 to 57.8), catch-and-shoot jumpers (44.3 to 56.9) and shots off screens (40.4 to 45.7).

The fact that Jackson’s numbers increased so dramatically despite his being at the top of opposition scouting reports is exceptional. “If you’re the fifth guy they talk about, it’s a comfortable life,” Williams says. “If you’re the first guy everybody is talking about, they go with you to the water fountain.” Jackson quenched the Tar Heels’ thirst for scoring anyway. His usage rate jumped from 21.0% as a sophomore to 25.8% as a junior, and his offensive rating climbed from 119.0 to 121.3. In 13 possessions with less than four seconds on the shot clock, Jackson hit 7 of 12 shots; his 1.615 points per possession in such scenarios ranked in the 100th percentile nationally. In short, he had the ball more while teams were paying more attention to him, and he still performed at an All-America level.

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Jackson became, in every sense, the big shot North Carolina believed he could be. “I want my teammates and coaches to expect me to produce,” he says. “It’s definitely different from the past two years. But this is the type of scenario I like.”

In the regular-season finale against Duke, the junior struggled a bit—he shot just 6 of 17 and missed 6 of 7 three-point attempts—but he drained his lone long-range shot with 5:54 remaining to give North Carolina a lead it wouldn’t relinquish in a 90–83 win. Once Jackson completed his postgame media responsibilities, he returned to the locker room. The entrance was locked. So Jackson furiously jiggled the handle, working diligently to get someone to let him in. It took time and effort. But the door opened.