Decades before he’d knock down crucial jump shots in the NCAA championship game and compete in three-point competitions with fellow Tar Heels alumnus Vince Carter at Kings training camp, Justin Jackson – at age two – began honing his textbook shooting mechanics on a plastic hoop inside his parents’ Houston, Texas house.
And long before Roy Williams at North Carolina and Dave Joerger in Sacramento, it was his mother, Sharon – a basketball standout at Blinn College – and father, Lloyd – a track and field star at the same institution – who served as his first coaches.
“My family was just always basketball fans,” said Jackson. “When I was two, they got a Little Tikes goal and we would just mess around the house. As I started getting older, we started playing a little more organized, so my parents were definitely huge in that development.”
Jackson’s time-honored fundamentals catapulted his progression from AAU standout to ACC Player of the Year to No. 15 pick in the NBA Draft.
The versatile forward’s appreciation for Hall of Famer George Gervin led him to choose No. 44 at the University of North Carolina, as well as emulate the smooth, crafty game of “The Iceman.”
“Somebody had compared me to him in high school, which was a huge comparison,” said Jackson. “I started watching some stuff about him, and I loved the way he played. I thought he played a little bit similar to how I played. I felt, that’s one of the greatest of all time, so why not try to make your game like his?”
By the time he’d depart the Chapel Hill campus following his junior season, the consensus First-Team All-American would not only hold the school’s single-season record for three-pointers (105), but become just the second player in the program’s illustrious history to record over 1,600 career points, 150 three-pointers, 400 rebounds and 300 assists.
Jackson’s path to the League, however, was far less conventional than his basketball idol’s – or that of nearly any other past or present NBA player.
Homeschooled from the fourth grade through high school, the rising star cracked the Cincinnati Trailblazers 14-and-under homeschool team roster at age 10, and captained the Homeschool Christian Youth Association Warriors varsity team when his family relocated to Texas.
Making a name for himself on the AAU circuit, Jackson – playing alongside future Kings teammate De’Aaron Fox, as well as 2015 NBA first-round Draft picks Justise Winslow and Kelly Oubre on the Houston Hoops team – soared to the No. 8 rank in his entire class by ESPN.
Despite the common stereotypes and misconnections, homeschooling hardly posed a disadvantage during the collegiate recruitment process. The Parade All-American began drawing interest from Division I organizations as early as eighth grade, and had two dozen programs vying for his services by the time he enrolled in high school.
After all, few top-tier prospects could maintain a 4.0 GPA while putting up 31.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game on the varsity team; much less win co-MVP honors in the McDonald’s All-American Game.
More so, in addition to facilitating his academic and athletic achievements, Jackson believes homeschooling was essential to his overall personal growth.
“Honestly, bigger than (basketball), I think it was huge for the development of me as a person,” he said. “It gave me a little bit more time to be with my family and to be with my close friends. Being able to work on myself every day, being around people who were good influences and people that I look up to, I think that was big.”
During the most trying period of his career to date, Jackson relied on his family’s guidance and influential words of advice more than ever.
On the heels of UNC’s heart-breaking loss in the 2016 national championship game, NBA front office evaluators questioned if Jackson – who uncharacteristically connected on 63 of 212 three-point attempts (29.7 percent) over his first two collegiate seasons – could effectively space the floor at the next level.
After initially declaring for the Draft, the 6-foot-8 forward returned to North Carolina on a two-pronged mission, spending countless nights firing up jump shots inside the Dean Smith Center to rediscover his rhythm.
“I felt like I had some things that I could definitely get better at,” he said. “And then I felt like also, we had a team that could possibly do some big things.”
Jackson didn’t just improve his accuracy, but established himself as one of the most prolific knock-down shooters in the nation as a junior. No. 44 raised his three-point field-goal percentage to 37.0 percent while attempting more than twice as many triples (7.1 per game) – becoming only the 10th player in the last decade to hit over 100 threes at such a high clip, according to sports-reference.com.
The Tar Heels team MVP routinely came through on the biggest stages and in the highest-pressure situations throughout the season, from a career-high 34 points against Fox and powerhouse Kentucky on Dec. 17, 2016, to 21 points in a nationally-televised road tilt against archrival Duke on Feb. 9.
In the Final Four, with his team’s season hanging in the balance against No. 3 seed Oregon, Jackson knocked down three triples in a four-minute stretch to nearly-single-handedly lead UNC back to the national-title game.
Jackson’s ultimate redemption came on his final night as a collegiate athlete – a thrilling, come-from-behind victory over Gonzaga to secure that elusive championship – completing his ascension from a once-unproven role player to the driving force on a national-championship team and soon-to-be-first-round NBA Draft pick.
Impossible to keep out of the Kings practice facility from the moment he arrived in Northern California, the No. 15 overall selection has already made a strong impression on his coaching staff and teammates, who believe a similar progression is on the horizon.
“He’s putting in work every day,” said Joerger. “He’s almost an over-worker – just a great guy to have in our culture and our program.”
In his first extended opportunity, Jackson shouldered the scoring load for the Kings in Summer League action with a team-leading 16.6 average in six contests. The small forward came off the bench to pour in 18 points on 63.6 percent from the field in his debut, and capped off Las Vegas competition with a 29-point outburst in a win over the Suns.
“You can see guys that rise above, and he’s one of those,” said Kings Summer League Coach Jason March. “You can trust him on the floor. He’s going to do the right thing – or try to do the right thing –every single time.”
Early into the regular season, Jackson has picked up right where he left off, continuing to provide efficient scoring and sound decision-making regardless of his role. In 10 games – five starts – the Texas native is averaging 6.4 points on 46.4 percent from the field and 36 percent from long-range, notching a career-high 16 points in Sacramento’s comeback win over the Thunder on Tuesday.
Far from a one-dimensional shooter, the 22-year-old’s patented go-to move – a high-arching floater on his way to the basket – as well as his knack for getting clean looks off pin-down screens, have neatly translated to the NBA level.
Comfortably playing within the flow of the offense, 23 of his 26 field goal makes (88.5 percent) have been assisted by a teammate, including seven dunks or lay-ups, according to NBA.com. Overall, the Kings rookie has made 11-of-12 shots within five feet of the basket – the second-best mark in the League among all players with at least 10 attempts.
Jackson’s self-starting work ethic is undeniable, but as he learns to adjust to the NBA game, his parents’ perpetual support system continues to be instrumental in the studious rookie’s progression.
“Outside of my wife, they’ve been my biggest supporters, and people who put in a lot of time, money, travel – everything like that – into my career,” he said. “I can’t thank them enough. They’re definitely a huge reason why I’m here, and hopefully continue improving.”