Here is a look back at the 2014-15 season for the returning Tar Heels. Today we look at freshman Justin Jackson.
Jackson entered this season with enormous expectations heaped upon his very slender shoulders. A consensus top-ten recruit, Jackson was expected to be the solution to the scoring woes that UNC faced most of last season, and very early on, that is exactly what he was. In his first three games as a collegian, Jackson scored a very efficient 40 points posting individual game ORtgs of 122, 151, and 148. Jackson continued to play well over the next two months (ORtg >100 in 11 of his next 16 games), but then appeared to hit the proverbial "freshman wall" by the end of January. Starting with UNC's win over Florida State, Jackson would post ORtgs under 100 in 5 of the next 7 games, culminating with the worst game of his young career: 2 points on 1-8 shooting in 17 minutes (50 ORtg) against Duke.
A lesser player would have allowed the tailspin to continue, but Jackson is not a lesser player and rebounded to show why he was so highly rated coming out of high school. Jackson would score in double figures in 11 of the final 12 games of the season (13.4 ppg) while posting ORtgs of 115 or better in nine of those games. Perhaps most importantly, after hitting just 11 of his first 52 three-point attempts (21.6%), over those last 12 games Jackson hit on 15 of his 38 attempts from behind the arc (39.5%), finally providing the Heels with the second threat from the perimeter they had been lacking for more than a year.
What to expect next season
If the expectations for Justin Jackson this season were high, then next season's will likely be through the roof. With a full season under his belt, and a full summer to spend with UNC's elite strength and conditioning staff, Jackson should enter next season a much stronger and more confident version of what we saw, even at the end of this season. While UNC's depth, and the fact that it will still very much be Marcus Paige's team, will likely put a modest cap on Jackson's scoring, it is still very easy to envision him averaging in the neighborhood of 15 points per game, especially if he can continue to shoot 35-39% from behind the arc and improves his free-throw rate into the mid-30s (he was 28.3% this season).
Looking beyond the scoring, for UNC to improve defensively and reach its ultimate potential, Jackson will have to be a much bigger factor on the defensive glass. Jackson averaged just 3.7 rebounds per game as a freshman, and had a DR% of only 8.9%, both of which are low for a wing in Roy Williams' system, especially one that is 6'8". Ideally, Jackson will push those numbers up to 5.0 rpg and a DR% of 12.0 - 14.0, which will go a long way towards helping shore up one of the Heels' biggest weaknesses this season.
Jackson probably won't get a lot of attention when it comes to preseason accolades, but if Carolina is to meet (or exceed) the performance expected of a preseason top 5 team, then Jackson will almost certainly have to perform at a level that earns him postseason accolades. Averaging 15 and 5, with an ORtg north of 120, whould go a long way towards accomplishing both.