The long list of North Carolina basketball heroes who were consensus first-team All-Americans in the same season as the Tar Heels won the NCAA championship includes Lennie Rosenbluth in 1957, James Worthy in 1982, Tyler Hansbrough in 2009, Justin Jackson in 2017 and … well, that’s it. So it’s not a long list, is it?
It may be the most exclusive club in the grand history of Tar Heels basketball.
That will be Jackson’s enduring legacy in Chapel Hill. Thursday, UNC announced he was entering the NBA Draft and will not retain the option of returning to school as a senior. He had entered the draft a year ago to explore his options, then chose to spend another year in college.
“And what a year it was for him and our team,” coach Roy Williams said in the school’s release. “He did what our coaches and the NBA people advised him to do: get stronger and work on making more shots. 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.”
As much as Carolina has celebrated since defeating Gonzaga last week in the championship game, though, it feels a bit as though Jackson’s contributions have not been fully appreciated.
Jackson was not named the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament South Region, even though he clearly was, because it only made sense to reward supersub Luke Maye for his consecutive career scoring highs and the buzzer-beating game-winner he made in the final against Kentucky.
Jackson was not named the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four, even though he was, because of his one-night-only struggle to make 3-point shots against the Zags and what the playing-hurt heroics of point guard Joel Berrymeant to the title-game victory.
Jackson was the team’s leading scorer in both venues, and he was the most impactful defender. He is a few trophies lighter than he might have been, but he is an NCAA champion. He scored 1,626 career points, and scored the second-most NCAA Tournament points of any Carolina player, ever.
Jackson said he “wouldn’t trade anything” for his three years as a Tar Heel, “especially getting the chance to win a national championship, which was unbelievable.”
Jackson was an integral part of two Final Four teams, something neither Michael Jordan nor Phil Ford can say.
He improved in all facets of the game in his final season, gradually embracing his responsibilities as the team’s first offensive option to the point where he was comfortable leading the team with 15 shots per game. A 29 percent 3-point shooter as a junior, he set North Carolina’s single-season record for 3-pointers made (105) and hit 37 percent. His rebounding and free throw shooting numbers also increased.
If NBA scouts are wise, they'll recognize what his length and 6-8 height at the small forward position can mean at their level; he can score from long range off the catch and off the bounce, and he excels at finishing in traffic and scoring over smaller defenders.
And, as his college career neared its end, unleashing surprising defensive ability that wrecked Kentucky’s Malik Monk (4-of-10 shooting, 12 points), Oregon’s Tyler Dorsey (3-of-11, 21 points) and Gonzaga’s Jordan Mathews/Silas Melson combo (3-of-10, ninepoints). Those efforts might have been the greatest difference in the Tar Heels fulfilling their goal of “redemption” for the 2016 title-game loss to Villanova.
“He became an elite defender,” Williams said. “His last three defensive performances -- against Kentucky Oregon and Gonzaga, against some of the most talented perimeter scorers in the country —were nothing short of spectacular.”
At some point in the future, when a break in the NBA schedule affords the opportunity, Jackson will return to Chapel Hill to see his jersey honored for his selection as ACC player of the year and consensus All-American. The rules for honoring jerseys at UNC, and the vast number of extraordinary players who’ve worn the uniform, mean Jackson’s No. 44 will be in a pretty heavy crowd up there.
Only three others, though, had a season quite like what Jackson just delivered. Maybe in time, his impact will be fully understood.