The ACC boasted two first-team All-Americans on two absolutely fantastic teams last season. One was UNC’s Brice Johnson, who not so quietly put together one of the best big man senior seasons in recent memory. Just a few days ago, he found his jersey placed up in the rafters of the Dean Dome. But even with all the dunks, double-doubles and emphatic swats, Johnson couldn’t take the ACC Player of the Year award away from Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon. This year, a Tar Heel should be able to win the award for the first time since Tyler Zeller in 2011-12. That player is Justin Jackson.
Our own Matt Ferenchick wrote about Jackson’s National Player of the Year odds a few weeks ago. While that may still be a little farfetched, No. 44 is solidifying himself as the favorite to win the ACC’s version of the award. Although he does face some stiff competition from a Blue Devil, the combination of Jackson’s development and UNC’s conference success should make him the frontrunner. Even Jay Bilas said as much on last night’s broadcast of the Louisville showdown.
The major improvement in Jackson’s game this year has been his remarkable progression in three-point shooting. In his first two years in Chapel Hill, Jackson never averaged more than 0.9 threes made per game. On top of that, he shot 30.4 percent his first year and an even worse 29.2 percent his second year. This season? Jackson’s up to a healthy 39.4 percent while draining a little under three threes a game. His shot hasn’t changed all that much; it’s more just how confident and assured he looks now.
The rest of Jackson’s game was already solid, but he’s made adjustments here and there to make him that much deadlier an offensive player to opposing ACC defenses. His mid-range game is smooth and very quick, and his floater is up there with the best of point guards. Jackson is also deadly on the break, either rushing out to the wings for an open corner three or finishing with a beautiful, athletic layup. For the college game, it’s hard to get much more consistent and varied than Jackson.
Most importantly, Jackson has been showing up in big games. The biggest criticism levied against him for a while, other than his inconsistent outside shooting, has been his timidity with the ball. Sometimes he didn’t look comfortable taking the shot or was unsure of what to do in the moment. That hasn’t been the case in his tremendous junior campaign.
Here are just a few of the stellar performances he’s had in primetime games thus far. In a loss at Indiana, he was really the only Heel with a pulse, finishing with 21 points and eight rebounds. In a brutal loss to Kentucky, Jackson came away with a career-high 34 points. And he’s scored 20 or more against serious competition like Florida State, Virginia, Duke and, of course, last night against Louisville. He’s been a model of consistency and, even when UNC loses, Jackson does everything he can to get a win.
One last interesting thing about Jackson’s case for ACC Player of the Year is how similar his year is to Brogdon’s. Jackson is currently averaging 18.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists on 46.1 percent shooting from the field and 39.4 percent from deep. Brogdon? In his senior year, he averaged 18.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 45.7 percent shooting from the field and 39.1 percent from three. It’s eerie how close these numbers are, although it must be said that Brogdon was a big plus on defense as well. Jackson’s a solid defender but not at the level of Brogdon quite yet. Nonetheless, Jackson’s all-around game for an ACC contender, like Brogdon before him, suggest he’s deserving of the award.
And, please, whatever happens, it can’t be Duke’s (*whispers* very deserving as well) Luke Kennard. Kennard has kept Duke in the national conversation all season long despite blowups from Grayson Allen, once the presumed winner of this award, injuries and even a Coach K absence. He’s had a remarkable year, perhaps a year or two earlier than most expected. But, hopefully, Jackson become the 15th Tar Heel to win the ACC Player of the Year, tying Duke for most ever in the conference.