Justin Jackson could feel things start to turn in the N.C. State game, a North Carolina loss that may have been forgettable for the Tar Heels but turned out to be memorable for Jackson.
Much was expected of Jackson as a freshman, a rangy 6-foot-8 wing equally comfortable driving to the basket or firing up 3-pointers. For most of the season, he delivered little. His lack of confidence was plainly apparent, as was his lack of preparation for the physical aspects of college basketball.
“I knew over time it would start going in,” Jackson said. “Obviously, in the very beginning of the season, not very many went in at all. Now, I'm just kind of seeing some of the hard work pay off. … N.C. State was kind of whenever it flipped. That was the game where it started feeling really good.”
He had 16 points against the Wolfpack on Feb. 24, the second in a string of games in double figures that extended to six in Wednesday's 81-63 ACC Tournament win over Boston College. Jackson had 12 points on 4-for-7 shooting, including 2-for-3 from 3-point range.
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“He got great shots, great looks today,” North Carolina guard Marcus Paige said. “It always helps – especially as a freshman, the grind of ACC can be tough -- it helps to make your first shot, get an easy first basket. He got a good look from 3 today and that kind of set him up. … Then he can get his floater going, and he can get a putback on the offensive glass, try to get out in transition.”
This is a big deal for North Carolina, because a lack of outside shooting has been the Tar Heels' biggest weakness this season, allowing teams to lock down on Paige on the perimeter without any fear of consequences.
If teams have to honor the threat Jackson presents from outside, that opens up space for Paige. It opens up space for Brice Johnson inside. And it opens up space for Jackson himself, who has the ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim.
Over this six-game stretch, Jackson is 8-for-18 from 3-point range. Over the previous 26 games, he was 9-for-52. That's what North Carolina will need from Jackson, not just against Boston College and not just against Louisville on Thursday, if the Tar Heels want to play on in March.
“It does give us another scoring threat that can shoot a good percentage from the 3-point line,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “I think it's been a steady progression over the course of the season. I'd like for him to run that streak about, uh, nine more games.”
His numbers are right. So, for them moment, are Jackson’s.
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