Roy Williams on UNC's 80-69 victory against Northwestern
The most important conversation North Carolina coach Roy Williams shared with Justin Jackson, the sophomore forward, came back in the spring. That was the big one, the one where they talked about expectations, goals and how to achieve them.
But before the ninth-ranked Tar Heels' 80-69 victory against Northwestern on Monday night at the Sprint Center in the Hall of Fame Classic there had been other talks. Shorter ones. Ones in which Williams tried to encourage Jackson, tried to help him through the mild slump he experienced during UNC's first three games of the season.
There had been questions, after all, about what was hindering Jackson. About why he wasn't playing the way he did toward the end of last season, when after something of a slow start Jackson began showing why he arrived at UNC amid considerable expectations.
Was Jackson putting too much pressure on himself? Was the burden of taking the next step in his development, an expected step, too much early on? Was he pressing? Were there reasons to be concerned?
And on the questions went after Jackson averaged less than eight points and shot 37.5 percent during UNC's first three games. Jackson received some of those questions. And Williams, too.
“I told him that you guys were all pestering the crap out of me,” Williams said here on Monday, referencing the reporters' questions he'd received lately about Jackson. “That's what I told him, exactly.”
That was Williams being Williams, cracking a line in a postgame press conference. Williams said on Monday, again, that he was never all too worried about Jackson. Even so Williams knew, too, that Jackson hadn’t quite been himself.
During the first few games of a season that just might depend on whether Jackson goes from good to great, Jackson looked like he did through much of the early part of last season: timid, out of place. Reluctant.
And so Williams encouraged Jackson to rediscover his aggressiveness. He did on Saturday during UNC's 71-67 loss at Northern Iowa, where Jackson's performance – 25 points on 9-for-15 shooting – was a bright spot.
“I was frustrated with how I was playing,” Jackson said of his play before the Northern Iowa game. “But I knew my teammates had confidence in me. I knew the coaches had confidence in me and I had confidence in myself. It was just a slow start.
“And for me, the Northern Iowa game, obviously we lost, which wasn't fun at all – but it kind of got me going a little bit. And so now I'm just trying to keep it going a little bit.”
The breakout against Northern Iowa wouldn't have meant as much had Jackson followed it with another quiet game on Monday. And so he didn't.
The Wildcats' zone defense gave UNC its share of issues on Monday night, but Jackson at times thrived against it. Especially when he'd drive the baseline for short, floating – and often successful – jump shots or layups.
“Even all through high school I was able to find the open spot, whenever people are in zones and stuff like that,” Jackson said on Monday. “And today I just kept on trying to get to the open spot and my teammates kept finding me, so it was a good game.”
It was, perhaps, his best overall game since arriving at UNC. Jackson led the Tar Heels on Monday night with 21 points, and he also led them in rebounds, with 13.
His previous career-high for rebounds was seven. Jackson nearly doubled that against Northwestern.
“His aggressiveness on the backboards tonight was huge for us,” Williams said afterward. “And I talked to him last spring when we were sitting down trying to determine what I wanted his goals to be in the off-season, doing a better rebounding was a huge part of it.”
That didn't necessarily show itself earlier this month. Jackson finished with two rebounds in UNC's season-opening victory against Temple. In the next game, against Fairfield, he didn't have a single rebound. He had two, again, in a victory against Wofford.
Somewhere along the way Williams reminded him of the their conversation about aggressiveness. And not just the kind that leads to more opportunities to score, but the kind that leads to more rebounds, too.
Jackson on Monday night finished with six offensive rebounds – as many as Northwestern had as a team. Northwestern ran a zone defense during the entire game, and so Jackson positioned himself where the Wildcats weren't.
Williams and Steve Robinson, one of UNC's assistant coaches, had been urging Jackson to become a more active rebounder. The physical tools, at least, have never been in doubt. Jackson is a wiry 6-foot-8, with a frame that can find room in crowded places.
He acknowledged on Monday, though, that his early lack of production was less physical than it was mental. Part of Jackson's recent improvement is a result of simple increased desire.
“I definitely feel like I've gone out there and shown a little bit more effort than I had in my first three games,” Jackson said. “So if I can keep that up, I think I can be all right.”
Overall UNC's victory against Northwestern was hardly a work of art. The Tar Heels during one 10-minute stretch in the first half were outscored 27-11. Even after they built a 20-point lead in the second half, they allowed Northwestern to whittle its deficit back down to nine points.
UNC shot 45.2 percent, took more 3-pointers (24) against the zone than Williams would have liked. The victory was, at times, an exercise in overcoming sloppiness.
But in the middle of it all Jackson was, for the second consecutive game, his team's best player. It was encouraging sign for a team that is attempting to go from good to great, and one that needs Jackson to do the same.