CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Pittsburgh coach Kevin Stallings remembered going against the old Justin Jackson. The one from Halloween 2015, when Stallings, who was then at Vanderbilt, held a scrimmage against North Carolina away from the public eye in lieu of playing an exhibition game.
That version of Jackson looked nothing like the one Stallings saw Tuesday night, the one who helped the Tar Heels avoid an upset in an 80-78 win over the Panthers.
Jackson led Carolina with 20 points. It was his fourth straight game scoring at least 20, which is the longest streak in his three seasons.
“[Stallings] is seeing more of an aggressive Justin than he was last year,” said Tar Heels junior guard Joel Berry II, who scored 19 points.
Carolina needs him to be.
In Jackson’s first two seasons, he was fine deferring shots and leadership to older players such as Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson. But the Tar Heels can no longer afford the luxury of Jackson playing in the shadows of other stars. In order for the team to stay in first place in the ACC, Jackson has to set the tone offensively.
“I feel pretty good. I’m just staying into every shot confidently,” Jackson said. “[Tuesday night] I did a better job of not really pressing, just letting things come to me. I’m just trying to play confident and aggressive and help my team as much as I can.”
Jackson has converted his weakness from last season -- he shot 29 percent from 3-point range -- into a strength. He entered Tuesday ranked seventh in the ACC, with a 40.1 shooting percentage from 3.
“The difference is he’s making them,” said senior Isaiah Hicks, who had 18 points and a team-high eight rebounds. “Of course, Justin’s taking them. He worked really hard. You see him every day working on his shot. It’s all about his work ethic, and it shows.”
There’s a different bounce about him on the floor. Twice against the Panthers, he pump-faked a 3-pointer, only to step aside from a reaching defender, stay behind the arc and launch a shot.
Jackson leads the Tar Heels with an 18.7 scoring average. But it isn't just his shooting that made an impression on Stallings.
“He’s a way more confident shooter. He’s a way more aggressive player on offense,” Stallings said. “He’s playing a lot harder on defense. He impacts every aspect of the game, it feels like to me. … When we scrimmaged them to now, he’s a completely different player.”
Carolina needs him to be.
The Tar Heels’ ACC schedule was back-loaded with difficult games. Through their first nine ACC games, Florida State was the only team they faced in the top five of the league standings. Now they prepare to face six nationally ranked teams in their final eight games, starting with Notre Dame on Saturday.
They’re still doing it without junior guard Theo Pinson, who missed his second straight game after rolling his right ankle against Virginia Tech last week. UNC coach Roy Williams said Pinson will “start back working some” on Wednesday, but he will not play against the Irish.
Notre Dame and its undersized lineup can put the same kind of pressure on Carolina’s defense that the Panthers did in creating matchup problems. The same gaping holes with pitting Carolina's bigs on smaller forwards will exist without the option of using Pinson to match up.
“As much as we wish we had him out there, we have to focus on the team that we got out there,” Jackson said. “We can’t make excuses that Theo’s not out there. We got us.”
Carolina has come to rely on Jackson. He has been its most consistent player offensively this season. That wasn’t the case this time last season, when he was held under 10 points in five of nine games to begin ACC play. Even in the Heels’ four losses this season, Jackson has averaged 23 points, including his career-high 34 points in the 103-100 thriller against Kentucky in December.
“We have more put on us than we had last year. We’re playing more aggressive than we might have been,” Jackson said of the team’s upperclassmen. “I’m just trying to stay confident and know that the preparations I’ve put in will translate on the court.”
They have helped him transform into a new Justin Jackson -- just what Carolina needed him to be.