Chase Bengel walked out onto the court at the Smith Center before a recent North Carolina practice, pointing out the places where Justin Jackson transformed from the player he was during his first two college seasons to who is now, the ACC Player of the Year.
Bengel pointed to the corner, near the baseline and behind the 3-point line. Too many hours to count last summer, Jackson couldn’t leave that spot before he made at least nine out of 10 shots. And then there was the spot on the wing a few long strides away, and another one a little closer to the basket.
“And there’s one drill called the Atlanta drill,” said Bengel, the Tar Heels’ head manager, “that he learned from the Hawks, that’s like – it’s a movement drill, so you move from the wing to the corner, and then corner to the wing. It’s more moving shots.”
Bengel kept pointing, reciting the different shooting drills that Jackson repeated day after day, night after night. The routine was nearly always the same: Jackson in the gym, shooting, moving, shooting some more. Bengel rebounding, passing. And then they’d get something to eat, late.
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“Old Chicago,” said Bengel, a senior from Charlotte who has been a UNC varsity manager since his sophomore year. “That’s the spot. Because you get $2 pizza after 10 o’clock.”
UNC arrived in New York City for the ACC tournament this week the favorite to win it. The Tar Heels are the No. 1 seed, the ACC regular-season champions by two full games, and Jackson, the 6-foot-8 junior forward from Tomball, Texas, is days removed from being named ACC Player of the Year.
For someone who doesn’t like the spotlight, and doesn’t all that much like answering questions about how this all happened for him – going from good to great, at an accelerated pace – this isn’t a very good place to hide. Jackson will be on the brightest stage this week.
And people might wonder, again: How did he go from the player he was his freshman and sophomore seasons to this, in his junior year? Ask Jackson a version of that question and the answer is likely to be a variation of the same thing: The transformation began in the summer, he’ll say.
It began with early-morning workouts and late-night shooting sessions, and an idea of renewed commitment. Jackson, remember, arrived at UNC in 2014 amid grand expectations. He was, and remains, the most promising high school prospect the Tar Heels had signed since Harrison Barnes.
Perhaps he expected the transition from high school to college to come easily. It did not.
Perhaps he expected to thrive on his raw talent alone. He could not.
“In the past,” Jackson said not long ago, “I would be OK with, ‘OK, I got in the gym once today. I’m good.’ Or, ‘I’m tired today, I might not do as much.’ ”
Then he woke up one day and his first two college seasons were gone. They weren’t bad seasons. Jackson started from his first game on. He averaged 11.5 points per game during his first two years. In moments, he provided glimpses of his considerable potential.
And yet he left people wanting more. He left himself wanting more.
And then there was the perimeter shooting, especially. Jackson arrived at UNC with a shooter’s reputation.
“When you’re coming out of high school, you’re well-recognized, you’re pretty cocky,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “But if you shoot two years and you shoot 29 percent for two years, that’s called reality.”
During his first two seasons, Jackson made 29.7 percent of his 3-point attempts. At times he endured long, miserable shooting slumps – like one stretch last season when he made four of his 21 3-point attempts over six games from late February to mid-March.
Or during his freshman year, when Jackson made two 3-pointers, total, amid one 12-game stretch in the middle of the season. Compare that to this season, when Jackson made at least two 3-pointers in 15 consecutive games – a streak that recently ended.
“I think it’s the amount of work that I put in in the off-season, I think was way different than what I did the first two years,” Jackson said recently. “I think I just took it a whole lot more serious than I should have in the first couple of years and I think that preparation has just kind of translated onto the court.”
What Jackson was saying was a little obvious, and a lot cliché – the kind of things that most college athletes like to say, because, to a degree, they all work hard. But at the time, Jackson thought he was putting in the work during his freshman and sophomore seasons, too. Now he knows better.
If there was a turning point, it might have come when Jackson went through the pre-NBA draft process last summer. He took advantage of the new NCAA and NBA rule allowing players to declare for the draft, go through the NBA Draft Combine and return to school if they don’t sign with an agent.
Jackson didn’t necessarily hear anything new when he went through that process. After all, Williams and the Tar Heels coaching staff had been telling him that the one thing he needed to do, above all, was become a more adept shooter.
“I told him what I thought before he went up there,” Williams said, speaking of Jackson attending the draft combine, “and he went up there and they told him the same thing that I thought.”
Hearing it from NBA personnel, though, reaffirmed the point: Jackson had to do something to address his shot. It wasn’t that it was mechanically broken. There was nothing wrong with it, exactly. Williams and his staff reviewed Jackson’s shot, and concluded that everything was there for it to work well.
Everything, that is, except for the end result. Rather than fix anything, Jackson simply strived to practice more. And to practice better.
“The old saying, ‘Practice makes perfect,’ is terrible,” Williams said. “Because it’s perfect practice makes perfect. And I think that’s where he’s gotten involved in it, too, because he’s really put in the stress, the sweat, the attention to detail and, knock on wood, so far it’s paid off for him.”
That’s where Bengel came in. Over the years, he and Jackson had developed a friendship, and when Jackson needed a shooting buddy over the summer – or, to put it more accurately, when he needed a rebounder, or some motivation, or someone willing to stay late – he knew where to turn.
Bengel estimated recently that Jackson spent about seven hours in the gym, daily, during the summer. That included the time Jackson spent with Jonas Sahratian, the Tar Heels’ strength coach who helped Jackson add muscle that has allowed him to more effectively absorb contact.
Jackson and Bengel did most of their work at night. Luke Maye, the sophomore forward, was there most of the time. Kenny Williams, the sophomore guard, came occasionally. But always Jackson and Bengel, going through the same old shooting drills night after night after night.
Usually those drills required Jackson to shoot from at least seven spots. At each one, he had to make a given number of shots – nine of out of 10 or 10 out of 12, or whatever that particular sequence called for – and if he failed to reach that goal he had to start over.
“There was never a time when we left the gym because he couldn’t finish the drills,” Bengel said. “We’re going to stay there until we finish the drills. Whether it took two hours, or 30 minutes, you know, we were going to finish the drill.”
And so they finished the drills. That’s how Jackson went from making less than 30 percent of his 3-pointers during his first two seasons to making 38.5 percent of them this season. With 11 more 3s, Jackson would set a new school record for 3-pointers in a season (95, Shammond Williams, 1996-97).
The shooting was just a part of it. There was also the work with Sahratian – work that Jackson recently described with the kind of tone one might use to describe any dreaded, but necessary, task. And this was necessary, after all.
When Jackson arrived at UNC two years ago, he weighed about 190 pounds. Since he’s gained about 20 points – not a massive increase, but enough of one to allow him to withstand the physical rigors he regularly endures. Did he have a favorite summer exercise, the way he loved to shoot as often as he did?
“Let’s see,” Jackson said, smiling. “There’s no favorite in the weight room. I can guarantee you that. But Jonas, a good thing that Jonas does is he mixes it up, to where it’s not the same thing. But he pretty much did, I feel like, every single thing you could possibly do in the weight room.”
Those were the two things that Williams talked about, that scouts and NBA personnel talked about with Jackson: his shot and his strength. He spent the off-season addressing both, and five months after the start of preseason practice here Jackson is, the player many thought he’d be all along.
Since he earned ACC Player of the Year honors, Jackson’s No. 44 will hang in the Smith Center rafters. Jackson, who is averaging a team-high 18.3 points per game, sounded humbled when he spoke about it earlier this week, a little incredulous at how far he’d come after laboring through much of his first two years.
His journey, though, required some patience. It required some humbling moments. It required the long sessions with Bengel, Jackson’s friend and the team manager, and then at times it required some sustenance at Old Chicago, where the late-night pizza is cheap enough for a college budget.
“The things that he did behind closed doors when no one was looking, and that’s the biggest thing right there,” Joel Berry, UNC’s junior point guard, said of Jackson.
And now everybody will be looking. The Tar Heels arrived in New York City on Tuesday with Jackson their leading man, ready to help guide them the way he guided himself during his transformative summer.
No. 1 UNC vs. No. 9 Miami
When: Noon, Thursday
TV: ESPN, WRAL