NBA Sunday: Justin Jackson, Lottery Crasher

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After a subpar performance and numerous discussions with those close to him, the 21-year-old NBA hopeful made a difficult decision that he hoped would play out positively in the long run.

“I’m glad I had the chance to enter the Draft and attend the Combine where I was able to meet with a number of NBA executives and test my game against some of the top players in the country,” University of North Carolina swingman Justin Jackson was quoted as saying in a prepared statement.

It was 2016, and the rising junior made what many believed to be a wise decision in returning to school.

One year later, he is better for it.

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Back in 2005, with the ratification of the league’s collective bargaining agreement, the NBA enacted the well-renowned age limit, birthing what many have commonly referred to as the “one-and-done” rule. American-born players entering the league needed to either be one year removed from graduating high school, or 19 years old. Responding to a change in the times, the NCAA eventually enacted a rule that served as a bit of a compromise. For the first time, collegiate players could declare for the NBA draft, participate in the pre-draft process and withdraw, thereby retaining the option to return to school. The only catch was that the player had to preserve his amateur status by refraining from hiring an agent.

At its inception, the age limit was designed to lessen the risk that NBA teams made in drafting neophytes. With the success of many “prep-to-pro” players such as Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, more and more teams were sending scouts to high school gyms. As a result, the gross majority of high school players entering the league lacked the polish necessary to thrive, while others were plain old wasted investments.

The age limit eventually came.

Now, teams have more data, as well as at least one year worth of high-level, organized film to dissect in determining the trajectory of a prospect.

Naturally, the NCAA decided to adjust its rules, allowing for a player to put one foot in the pool before diving in completely. Jackson, in returning to UNC, is a major beneficiary of the process. He participated in the Combine in 2016 before withdrawing from the draft to return to school. He worked on what were considered the weaker parts of his game, helped his team win a national championship, and is now ready to make his mark on the NBA.

“I think it was really important,” Jackson said of his foray into the pre-draft process last spring.

Participating in the Draft Combine for a second consecutive year, Jackson can be fairly described as someone who won out by making an appearance at the Combine before opting to return to UNC for his junior year.

“The feedback I got last year… I took that extremely serious,” he said.

The proof is in the pudding. In 2016, after getting consistent feedback about the need to improve his shooting and his overall lack of girth, Jackson—who certainly had the size and length of a decent NBA wing—improved dramatically.

“Last year [in college] was just a translation of the work I put in on the offseason, and I’ve tried to keep that going as time has gone on. I’ve continued to do that and tried to continue getting better each and every day,” Jackson said at the 2017 NBA Draft Combine.

In 2016, after his sophomore year at Carolina, Jackson had converted just 29 percent of his three-point shots and 67 percent of his free-throws. The difference after one year was remarkable, as Jackson improved his three-point conversion rate to 37 percent and hit 77 percent of his free-throws. He became a more reliable spot up shooter while retaining his nimbleness and agility on the defensive end. And most importantly for a young player still filling into his body, Jackson weighed in at the 2017 Combine eight pounds heavier than he did at 2016. The additional weight didn’t appear to adversely impact his game.

In sum, after one year, it’s fair to say that his draft stock has improved dramatically. The latest consensus mock drafts from Basketball Insiders has Jackson being selected as highly as 10th overall, while Draft Express currently has him pegged at 15th.

What makes Jackson especially interesting is that, in some way, he has already put his money where his mouth is. He has decided to sign with an agent, which means he can’t return to school this time. Even if he could, though, he probably wouldn’t. He’s just a few weeks away from becoming a millionaire—there’s little to no chance he isn’t selected with a lottery pick.

“I’m all in,” Jackson said with a chuckle when asked how his experience at this year’s combine differed from last year.

“I can’t say ‘Coach I’m coming back,’ but it’s also a different mindset. I think I’ve matured a bit over this past year, mentally and physically. I’m looking forward to taking that next step and this is just kinda the first step in that process.

“Just to come out here and experience this whole experience again. Last year was a great experience for me and I think this year was even better.”

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The 2017 Draft has been discussed as potentially being one of the deepest in recent memory. Notable is the fact that, at the top of the draft, guards such as Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Dennis Smith and Frank Ntilikina dominate the conversation. With the gifted wings of the class, Jackson stacks right up with Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum, Jonathan Isaac and Og Anunoby. Of all the players, however, he may have the ability to crash the Top 10. He has already proven himself to have a high basketball IQ, as well as the ability to put words to action and improve himself.

That, no doubt, will resonate.

“I guess I had 10 interviews,” Jackson said of his experience at the 2017 Combine. “They’ve all been good, I’ve enjoyed every single one of them,” he said.

“They’re great organizations and I’m looking forward to hopefully being drafted by one of them.”

Without question, there will be more than a few teams looking forward to drafting him, as well.