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UNC Basketball: Filling Justin Jackson’s role

The ACC Player of the Year is now a Sacramento King, leaving a gap at the wing for UNC.

Kentucky v North Carolina Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It seems like a very long time ago now, but there was once a time when UNC fans held their breath when Justin Jackson shot a basketball. He was streaky at best, frustrating to watch at worst. There he was, the coveted McDonald’s All-American, shooting tough threes and missing too many of them. It had many Heels fans ripping their hair out, myself included.

That, of course, changed. You know the story—between his sophomore and junior seasons, Jackson increased his three point percentage by 8% and scored six more points per game. He was a monumental piece of a national championship winning team—stringing together the most proficient three-point shooting season in school history—and now he is gone.

Drafted 15th by the Sacramento Kings on Thursday, Justin Jackson’s departure will be felt as much on defense as offense. Jackson emerged as a lockdown perimeter defender in the postseason, stifling the likes of Kentucky’s Malik Monk and Oregon’s Dillon Brooks en route to a national championship. A fast, agile 6’8” forward who can guard four positions is tough to replace, but the Heels should have an adequate stand-in in 6’8”, 210 pound Pitt grad transfer Cameron Johnson. You can read all about that absurd fiasco here, but now that it’s over, Johnson will finally be a Tar Heel. With the same defensive versatility as Jackson, Roy Williams has his guy in Cameron Johnson. You should be very excited for this.

Johnson is the perfect fit for UNC’s system—absolutely perfect. It was once a do-or-die situation with signing incoming Kentucky freshman Kevin Knox—widely considered to be a one-and-done and, at one point, an ideal replacement for Jackson—until Cameron Johnson swooped in and alleviated our concerns. Johnson is so alike Justin Jackson that it’s almost eerie. Seriously, have you seen his highlights? Check ‘em out!

That beautiful, quick release. Those long, graceful strides. The shiftiness in getting to the basket. The masterful use of that left hand. Johnson could very well be Justin Jackson’s basketball doppelgänger. The only thing that’s missing is a devastating floater, but he makes up for that with a crafty, fiery aggression on the offensive end—he seems to seek contact instead of avoiding it. In a breakneck offense like the UNC’s, a wing who shoots 81% from the free throw line seeking to be fouled is an invaluable asset that will produce enough free points to possibly decide a game.

Of course, Cameron Johnson is nowhere near as proven as Justin Jackson, but the consistency is already there. Johnson has two years of eligibility left, and the stats between Johnson’s sophomore year and Jackson’s sophomore year are comparable and quite encouraging. Jackson scored 12.2 points per game on 46% shooting and 29% from behind the arc. Johnson averaged 11.9 points per game 45% shooting and 41% (!!!) from behind the arc. That’s not the mention the defensive tenacity and presence on the boards (they both averaged approximately 4.5 rebounds per game), but the most encouraging sign is Johnson’s ability to stroke the three ball.

It’s no coincidence that after years of incredibly streaky three point shooting, UNC started winning after things finally came together in 2016 and continued into 2017. Now with much of the core of those two teams gone, UNC will need new shooters to step in to fill those roles. In 2017, Jackson, though unexpected, filled that hole left by Marcus Paige, but now it’s Johnson’s turn. At this point in his career, he is by all means a better shooter, and perhaps a better player, than Jackson was. Let that sink in for a minute. Isn’t that exciting?

In 2018, even with a stacked conference and everyone still harping on about Grayson Allen, the ACC Player of the Year could very well remain a Tar Heel, be it Joel Berry or Cameron Johnson. That’s a hot take and wildly speculative and maybe I’m being overly optimistic but man, there sure is a lot to like about this Cameron Johnson guy. Throw in Theo Pinson—who is due for a breakout season, but that’s another story for another day—, Jalek Felton, and Kenny Williams, and the Heels should have no problem defending and shooting the 3. If everything goes according to plan, the Heels shouldn’t miss a beat in what is shaping up to be an absolutely loaded backcourt.