Justin Jackson didn’t need anyone to tell him he hadn’t been playing well this season.
“I know I was struggling,” he said, “but for me, I just have to keep on playing and leave it at that.”
He seemed to do just that Wednesday night, helping to lead North Carolina (23-5, 12-3 ACC) to an 80-68 win over N.C. State (14-14, 4-11).
Jackson finished with 17 points on 7 of 12 shooting and six rebounds. It was one of the best games this season from the sophomore forward who many thought would be a lottery pick in the NBA draft some day.
This year, however, has been marked by inconsistency for Jackson, with January being a particularly tough month. During a seven-game span, he averaged 8.4 points per game and was shooting 37 percent from the floor.
“He probably was just taking things a little too hard – making it too hard on himself at times,” said teammate Brice Johnson. “Sometimes you could tell he felt like a lot of pressure, trying to be that guy. He’s just playing a lot more comfortable now. He’s starting to relax, just play. We need him to do that.”
During a six-minute stretch in the first half against N.C. State, Jackson scored 12 points and added one assist. N.C. State’s Cat Barber started the game hot, making seven of his first nine shots for 18 points and pushing N.C. State to a 23-10 lead.
But after a UNC timeout, Jackson and his teammates buckled down and forced the Wolfpack and Barber into tough shots.
Those misses turned into rebounds and points for UNC. At times, Jackson played power forward and took advantage of the bigger man guarding him. He hit open 3s and attacked the basket.
Jackson was able to help turn things around and UNC walked into halftime with a 38-33 lead.
“Halfway through the first half, Justin Jackson got us right in the game,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “We were out of the game almost. I always say you never lose a game in the first half, but it certainly looked like they were running us out of the building.”
Williams said that stretch was key and from there, UNC never looked back.
“I just try to leave everything in the past,” Jackson said. “Today my teammates were finding me. I was open and just stepped into the shot like I was going to make it and I hit a couple.”
Williams said he’s noticed Jackson gaining confidence, particularly in his shot.
“Kids live and die by how the ball goes in the basket,” Williams said. “Whether I like it or not, that’s the way a lot of it is.”
Jackson says his confidence is where it’s always been, but that his shots are just finally starting to fall.
When asked to describe this season, Jackson sighed and thought a moment. He called it “pretty good.”
“I was down for a little bit, but it comes with the territory,” he said. “For me, I just try to keep on working and keep on getting better every day. I knew the work would pay off sooner or later.”
Jackson’s performance against the Wolfpack was indicative of how he was perceived coming out of high school: as a potential top pick in the NBA.
“He’s a prime-time player,” sophomore guard Theo Pinson said. “We all know that. He’s a great scorer and he’s finding that rhythm, and that’s scary.”