Tar Heel teams that bring home a national championship are held in high regard forever. When fans fondly remember the 2016-2017 national champions, the season Justin Jackson put together will likely be one of the first things on their mind.
Jackson returned for his junior year at Carolina after testing the NBA waters the previous season. The message for Jackson to work on his shot a bit more was clearly loudly received. In his breakout year, Jackson went from a very solid piece on a good team to an absolute star having one of the best seasons in the country.
On his team’s way to the championship in Phoenix, Jackson led the Tar Heels in points per game (18.3), minutes (32.0), and appeared in all 40 games. He finished just behind the big men trio of Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, and Tony Bradley in rebounds per game. Jackson was also just behind Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson in assists per game.
No matter where you look, Jackson was a force on the court. He did a little of everything for the Tar Heels on their way to cutting down the nets in the final game of the season. The biggest improvement in Jackson’s game may have come in his abilities beyond the three-point line. With more than 100 three-pointers made this year, Jackson set a new record for buckets from distance as North Carolina.
What may be forgotten with time (but shouldn’t be) is how JJax propelled the Tar Heels to a national championship through his defense. The outstanding job he did on Malik Monk in the Elite Eight game, and Oregon’s shooters like Tyler Dorsey in the Final Four game, as well as Nigel Williams-Goss in the championship, can’t be overstated.
Justin Jackson: shutdown defender was an absolute thing throughout the tournament. Even when his shot wasn’t falling the way we saw all year, Jackson was able to help his team in big ways by guarding the other team’s best shooters and keeping them from scoring at will. His long arms on the perimeter kept shooters from feeling comfortable, and that changed so many of the games Carolina needed to win in order to become champions.
It feels fairly inevitable that we’ve seen Justin Jackson play his last game in a Carolina uniform. With all he accomplished this season, it’s hard to argue that deciding to leave wouldn’t make sense for him. Without him, there is little doubt that Carolina would be the reigning champions. For that reason, he’s our MVP, and we’re certainly going to miss him. It was an incredible season-long performance to watch.