Why Justin Jackson could be next to rise in Smith Center rafters

UNC junior forward Justin Jackson is in the midst of an All-American kind of season, and if he earns that honor he could become the next player to have his jersey honored in the Smith Center rafters.
UNC junior forward Justin Jackson is in the midst of an All-American kind of season, and if he earns that honor he could become the next player to have his jersey honored in the Smith Center rafters. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Back in the locker room Justin Jackson was hoping to keep the momentum going, while out on the Smith Center court North Carolina honored Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, their jersey numbers hanging high above in the rafters.

It was halftime of UNC’s 65-41 victory against Virginia on Saturday. Jackson by then had scored 18 of his 20 points – another brilliant half, one of his best, in a season full of them. Paige and Johnson, who as seniors a season ago led the Tar Heels to the Final Four, were back for a ceremony in their honor.

The festivities – coach Roy Williams’ brief remarks, followed by a video montage and no shortage of applause – created an obvious question, and parallel: Whose number might be next to rise to the top of the Smith Center? Might it be Jackson’s No. 44?

“We’ll have to see,” Williams said on Saturday, after the victory. “We’ve got some season left to play. I don’t like to talk about long-range plans. We’ve got to play Wednesday night (against Louisville). But first half – that’s pretty impressive what he did in the first half. Second half, he scored two more points than Wanda.”

“Wanda” would be Williams’ wife, and a comparative measure Williams likes to use to emphasize a player’s futility. Indeed, Jackson in the second half against Virginia scored but two points. But in the first he was, by a wide margin, the best, most productive player on the court.

Lately, it has often been that way for Jackson, the 6-8 wing forward who, in his junior season, is closer than ever to realizing his considerable potential. The No. 8 Tar Heels (23-5, 11-3 ACC) on Wednesday night at the Smith Center play against No. 7 Louisville (22-5, 10-4) in another game that could decide the ACC’s regular season champion.

After Wednesday, UNC plays three more regular-season games, only one of those at home. Jackson, then, might well be approaching his final two games at the Smith Center, given the likelihood that he enters the NBA draft after this, his most impressive season.

If Jackson does decide to leave – and he’s provided no indication one way or the other, though he did take advantage of the opportunity to go through the pre-draft scouting process last year – then he could be back in about a year for a jersey ceremony.

Johnson and Paige became 50th and 51st UNC players to have their numbers hang in the rafters. Eight of those numbers have been retired while 43 of those numbers – like Johnson’s No. 11 and Paige’s No. 5 – have been honored.

Johnson earned the distinction by receiving consensus first-team All-American honors last season; Paige by being named a second-team All-American in 2014, his sophomore season. Jackson, meanwhile, is within reach of such All-American honors this season.

He’s averaging 18.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, and he’s equally adept at beating defenses with his ability to penetrate and finish with difficult, running shots, or with his talent for shooting over defenders from the perimeter. Jackson has made nearly 40 percent of his 3-point attempts this season, and has arguably improved his outside shot more than any player in school history.

If Jackson’s No. 44 is honored in the Smith Center rafters, it will be because he met one of several criteria: ACC Player of the Year; first- or second-team All-American; MVP (as determined by teammates and coaches) of a national championship team; or Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

Jackson has thought about such things – about his jersey hanging high, alongside two of his former teammates’ jerseys. Of course he thought about it, Jackson said recently. He’s human.

“And as humans, you want to see credit given to you,” he said on Saturday. “But for me I try to stay as humble as I possibly can, and continue to work and continue to work and not necessarily settle. There are still some plays tonight that I could have done a whole lot better.

“So obviously it would be a blessing to have my jersey up there with those guys, but for me I’m just trying to focus in on this moment and try to keep on getting better.”

Asked what he could have done better after playing one of his best halves of the season, Jackson told the story of the other half. The second half. He said he missed “some easy ones.” He remembered missing five of his six shots, overall.

Jackson spoke of the need to carry what he did in the first half to the second. Of putting it all together. After flashes of greatness during his first seasons at UNC, that’s what he has done more often than not this season – like in those first 20 minutes against Virginia.

“He’s a scorer, and he’s more aggressive this year, and that’s what we need from him,” said Joel Berry, the Tar Heels’ junior point guard.

Earlier in the week, before the Virginia game, Jackson had a chance to go out to dinner with Paige. After that victory on Saturday, Paige and Johnson walked into the UNC locker room, just like old times, and shared the moment. Before long, Jackson might just be sharing space with them in the rafters, too.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

No. 7 Louisville at No. 8 UNC

When: 9 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Smith Center, Chapel Hill