North Carolina

UNC freshman Justin Jackson excels again in exhibition-game starting lineup

UNC's Justin Jackson (44) shoots as Belmont Abbey's Markel Pollard (22) defends during the first half at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
UNC's Justin Jackson (44) shoots as Belmont Abbey's Markel Pollard (22) defends during the first half at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill. ehyman@newsobserver.com

It wasn’t too long ago, only about a year ago now, when everything in Isaiah Hicks’ world seemed a bit upside down and confusing. He arrived at North Carolina the top prospect in the state in his graduating class, but the transition to college didn’t come easily to him.

Which is why if anyone understands how easy Justin Jackson is making it look – how impressive a job Jackson is doing, so far – it’s Hicks, the Tar Heels’ sophomore forward. After UNC’s 112-34 exhibition victory against Belmont Abbey on Friday night Hicks tried to find the words.

“Justin, to me, is like advanced,” Hicks, who scored 14 points on Friday night, said of Jackson, who led the Tar Heels with 16 points and made eight of his 10 attempts from the field. “It’s like he’s been here a while. He’s like a born scorer.”

And as if he was born to do other things well on a basketball court, too. Jackson, the 6-foot-8 forward, also finished with five rebounds and two assists and two blocked shots. He played just 20 minutes – tied for most on the team – but started for the second consecutive exhibition game.

The next time UNC plays, it will be in its season opener. Weeks ago – months ago – there was a question as to who the fifth starter would be. Point guard Marcus Paige, forwards J.P. Tokoto, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks – their starting roles were assumed.

Now, too, it seems, is Jackson’s. Roy Williams, the UNC coach, wouldn’t exactly say that on Friday night. He said there was no way to measure how much of a gap Jackson had placed between himself and those he has been competing against for that starting spot.

But what Jackson has done in the two exhibition games – and during practices – have spoken more loudly and clearly than anything Williams might be able to say at this point, anyway.

“He has the knack for the ball finding his hands,” Williams said. “He’s working hard defensively, trying to become a better defensive player. He’s naturally an instinctive basketball player that makes the right pass. He’s going to be a good shooter.”

He has shown that much, at least. Jackson missed just two of his 10 shots on Friday night, albeit against significantly over-matched competition. Still, he did plenty that should translate into the Tar Heels’ more difficult games, and into those grueling January and February nights that are to come once ACC play begins.

Early in the first half on Friday night, Jackson received a pass on the right side and, with a quick first step, glided past a defender and made a layup high off the glass, drawing a foul in the process. Moments later, he was in the midst of blocking back to back shots.

And moments after that, he finished a fastbreak with a dunk that gave UNC a 21-4 lead. Jackson was homeschooled in his hometown of Tomball, Texas, and he has only been on campus here for a few months. It looks like he’s been around far longer.

And he gives UNC a different look, too, than what it had a season ago. With Jackson in the starting lineup, Tokoto is, technically, the shooting guard. Both Jackson and Tokoto play interchangable positions, though.

“(He) can score inside, outside,” Tokoto said. “(He) creates matchup problems defensively. He’s long, gets rebounds. Like last year we had Nate (Britt) at the two, me at the three. We didn’t have that kind of versatility at the two and the three but now we do. So it looks a lot better.”

It also looks like UNC has identified its fifth starter. Once a question, about a month ago, Jackson’s progression and production has provided the Tar Heels with some clarity.

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