UNC's Justin Jackson reflects on his faith
The origin of Justin Jackson’s shot can be traced all the way back to the family room in his parents’ house in Oklahoma, and to the plastic Little Tikes basketball goal that stood there, beckoning, essentially from the time Jackson learned how to walk.
He’s a college junior now, the ACC Player of the Year, and one of the primary reasons North Carolina will play in its 11th national championship game on Monday. Back then he was practically a baby when his mother began repeating a phrase he still hears in his mind: “Put your hand in the cookie jar.”
“That’s how it all started,” Sharon Jackson said with a laugh during a recent phone interview.
It could end, this season, with a national championship. UNC will play against Gonzaga, the top seed out of the West Region, in the NCAA tournament championship game. The Tar Heels, the top seed out of the South, are seeking their sixth NCAA championship in school history.
They are seeking some measure of redemption – and have sought that since losing early last April against Villanova, at the buzzer, in one of the most dramatic championship games in NCAA tournament history. In many ways, UNC has been on a season-long mission to reach this point.
And in many ways, Jackson, the slender 6-8 wing forward, has personified the drive to return to this stage. He was the one, in the summer, who changed the name of the team’s text messaging group – a digital conversation that includes every member of this team, including the walk-ons – to that single word: “Redemption.”
“Something small, not really that big,” Jackson said a couple of weeks ago of that gesture, changing the text group name. “But something just to kind of remind us every once in a while.”
Talking about redemption, about returning to this point, was one thing. The Tar Heels are back, though, because of their actions, because of their March (and early April) survival instincts and because of how they worked months ago, during long, sweaty summer workouts that laid the foundation for this run.
Jackson remembers them well, the ones he completed with Jonas Sahratian, UNC’s strength and conditioning coach, and the ones Jackson did in smaller groups. He’d often wind up at the Smith Center late at night, along with Luke Maye, the sophomore forward, and Chase Bengel, the head manager.
Jackson would go through his drills, and Bengel would rebound, for hours. On it went, for weeks during the longest days of the year. Jackson, during those weeks, found motivation in two years of misses, fuel in failure.
During his first two seasons at UNC, he was a fine player – a starter and a double-digit scorer, and an important piece of the Tar Heels’ success in 2015, when they reached an NCAA tournament regional semifinal, and last year, when they played for the national title. Still, though, something was missing.
Sometimes it was confidence. Oftentimes, it was an ability to make an outside shot.
Jackson, during his first two college seasons, made only 63 of his 212 3-point attempts (29.7 percent). He endured long, confidence-draining slumps, ones that his parents, Sharon and Lloyd, tried to help him through.
They both provided emotional support. Sharon also provided some coaching. She was the one who taught Jackson how to shoot in the first place, lessons that began early, just when he began to take aim at that Little Tikes goal.
“It wasn’t enough,” Sharon said recently of those times years ago, “to just throw the ball up there, even at 3 years old.”
Even then, shooting at a plastic rim a few feet off the ground, Jackson needed to embrace the fundamentals. And he did, developing elements of his shooting style – one that UNC coach Roy Williams recently praised for its simplicity – that he still carries with him.
Jackson always possessed the proper fundamentals, the precise technique. There was never anything fundamentally wrong with his shot, Williams has repeatedly said, even while Jackson watched 70 percent of his 3-point attempts bounce awry during his first two college seasons.
Sometimes Sharon could see it. Maybe it was mother’s intuition. Maybe it was her own experience as a junior college player at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, where she played for two years.
“There are times where I can see it,” Sharon said of the slight mechanical errors when Jackson’s shot might falter. “The big thing is when he was having a hard time last year, I’d go, ‘Your follow through is not tight enough, it’s just not tight enough.’ ”
She was referring to the old phrase Jackson learned when he was a toddler: “Put your hand in the cookie jar.” That’s the shape of a proper follow-through. Sharon knew that well enough, given her history with the sport.
She often played at Blinn on the inside, in the post, but at 5-11 she lacked the requisite size to impose any sort of physical will. And so she learned to do what she could on the perimeter, where she developed a reliable and fundamentally-sound outside shot.
She and Lloyd met at Blinn. He ran track. She played basketball, which is why she took a leading role in teaching the sport to their oldest son. From the beginning, Sharon tried teaching Jackson what she described as the textbook fundamentals of proper shooting technique.
And the follow-through – the hand in the cookie jar – was the basis of those early teachings. Jackson smiled when he heard the phrase repeated to him recently, while he sat in front his locker before a Final Four shootaround at University of Phoenix Stadium.
It brought back some memories. What did those words mean to him?
“Always follow through,” Jackson said, repeating the words slowly. “And not cutting it short. That’s the end point of the shot, and that’s what they taught me. That’s what my mom taught me from the beginning, when I was shooting on a Little Tikes goal.”
His journey will continue after Monday, perhaps in the NBA. Jackson has played well enough this season to become a more coveted NBA draft prospect. He went through the pre-draft process last year – declaring for it and not signing with an agent – and that allowed for important feedback.
The NBA front office personnel all told him the same thing: He had to shoot better, more consistently.
And so that’s what he worked on for months. Whenever he leaves UNC, whether it’s after this season or next, Jackson will depart after one of the most prolific shooting seasons in school history. This season he has made 105 3-pointers, and counting – more than anyone else in school history.
He has made 38.2 percent of 3-point attempts this season. And 41.7 percent in the NCAA tournament.
During UNC’s 77-76 victory against Oregon on Saturday night in a national semifinal, Jackson made three 3s during a four-minute stretch in the second half. The Tar Heels, it turned out, needed every one of them to survive their late shooting woes, and to advance to the national championship game.
These days, when his shot is at its most rhythmic, Jackson makes shooting 3s look easy. Yet he wasn’t even allowed to attempt them until he grew strong enough to shoot them properly. Jackson said he’d “sneak in a few” 3s every now and then, but the ban on attempting them allowed him to develop his mid-range shot.
That was another memory that made Jackson chuckle on Friday. He said his parents loved telling the story.
“They wouldn’t let me shoot a 3 until I got stronger, until I shot the ball the same way from farther out,” he said. “That way I wasn’t out there just throwing up shots, and messing up the form that they had taught me. So yeah, that’s how it all started.”
And here it ends, at least this season: With the Tar Heels in the national championship game, and with their hopes resting, in no small part, on Jackson’s ability to make shots from the outside. Asked recently what he most admires about Jackson’s shot, Williams went with the quick and easy answer, a joke:
That it often goes in, he said. Then he expanded.
“He’s got great extension,” Williams said. “Good spin, gets it up in the air, gets it set. It’s a simple shot. He doesn’t move it around, he doesn’t have his elbow here, he doesn’t take it up above his head. He puts it right there and shoots it, and so I love how simple it is.”
And yes, then there’s the fact that it has gone in a lot. So often that Jackson became a consensus first-team All-American – so often that it has helped him lead the Tar Heels to the brink of a national championship. In a lot of ways, Jackson has his first coach to thank. His mom taught him a thing or two, how to shoot a basketball included.
UNC vs. Gonzaga
When: 9:20 p.m. Monday
Where: Glendale, Ariz.