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How UNC’s Justin Jackson worked his way to the NBA

UNC's Jackson: For us, this is an unbelievable feeling

VIDEO: UNC's Justin Jackson talks about the victory over Gonzaga in the NCAA Division I men's basketball national championship game at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, AZ, Monday, April 3, 2017.
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VIDEO: UNC's Justin Jackson talks about the victory over Gonzaga in the NCAA Division I men's basketball national championship game at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, AZ, Monday, April 3, 2017.

When Justin Jackson went through the NBA’s pre-draft process a year ago, going through the NBA combine and through individual team workouts, he received the same feedback over and over again: Grow stronger and work to become a more consistent perimeter shooter.

Jackson dedicated himself to that mission last summer, spending long, sweaty nights working at the Smith Center – nights that ultimately helped him lead North Carolina to a national championship. Now Jackson, the 6-8 wing forward, will take his next step and enter the NBA draft.

Jackson announced his decision on Thursday in a statement that UNC released. He will sign with an agent, ensuring that his decision to leave after his junior season remains final. After the season Jackson had, one of the best in recent UNC history, it seemed inevitable that he’d head to the NBA.

Jackson last season led UNC with an average of 18.3 points per game and he made 105 3-pointers, a single-season school record. He became the 14th UNC player to be named ACC Player of the Year, and he excelled defensively throughout the NCAA tournament.

“I thank God, my coaches and teammates and the University of North Carolina for giving me this extraordinary opportunity,” Jackson said in a statement. “My family and I discussed my decision with Coach Williams and we agree that declaring for the NBA draft is best for my career.

“I wouldn’t trade anything the last three years as a Tar Heel, especially getting the chance to win a national championship, which was unbelievable. I feel I made a good decision last year to come back for my junior year. That has put me in a much better position as a basketball player and a person.”

Had he remained eligible for the NBA draft a year ago, Jackson likely would not have been projected as a first-round pick. After his improvement during his junior season, he is considered a potential lottery pick. DraftExpress.com projects Jackson to be selected 13th overall by the Denver Nuggets.

Jackson’s ascent from fringe first-rounder to potential lottery pick is a success story that, in some ways, wouldn’t have been possible before the 2015-16 season. Before that season, the NBA and NCAA agreed on a rule change that has allowed college players to better evaluate their pro prospects.

Under the rule change, college players are allowed to declare for the NBA draft, go through the pre-draft process – the scouting combine and individual team workouts – and still return to school as long as they don’t sign with an agent. Jackson made the most of the opportunity.

“He did what our coaches and the NBA people advised him to do – get stronger and work on making more shots,” UNC coach Roy Williams said in a statement. “He responded by investing a tremendous amount of his time in the offseason and came back to school a bigger, better and more confident player.”

UNC's Justin Jackson gives credit to Kentucky but says he wouldn't trade the Tar Heel players or coaches for anything.

When Jackson earned ACC Player of the Year honors, that also meant that his No. 44 jersey would be honored in the Smith Center rafters. He later received consensus All-American honors, which also would have led to his jersey being honored if he hadn’t already been named ACC Player of the Year.

Jackson’s departure, though not unexpected, leaves UNC with a considerable void. A native of Tomball, Texas, Jackson started for the past three seasons. He played an integral role on UNC teams that played on the final Monday night of the season in each of the past two years.

UNC doesn’t have a player on its roster who is similar to Jackson, whose 731 points last season are the second-most, behind Tyler Hansbrough, that a UNC player has scored in Williams’ 14 seasons at UNC. Williams, though, is hoping that Jackson’s successor might be on his way.

Williams has long pursued Kevin Knox, a 6-8 wing forward from Tampa, Fla., who is among the nation’s top high school prospects. Knox, who is similar in some ways to Jackson, but perhaps not as perimeter-oriented, is expected to make his college decision within the next few weeks.

Tar Heels floor leader says faith has made him the player he has become and UNC can beat the Bulldogs for the NCAA Division I men's basketball title if they play together.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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