Justin Jackson, ladies and gentlemen. Get used to seeing his name.
He was ranked the No. 8 overall recruit in the class of 2014 by Recruiting Nation, yet somehow it seems he’s not being talked about enough. That could be a direct result of North Carolina coach Roy Williams' old-school rule of not allowing freshmen to talk until playing their first regular season game.
Duke’s Jahlil Okafor was named preseason all-America and was voted the ACC’s preseason Freshman of the Year, but Jackson could have just as much of an impact.
Andrew Carter of the Raleigh News & Observer summed it up best: Jackson could end up leaving Carolina fans fulfilled in the way that Harrison Barnes was expected to, but never quite accomplished.
Jackson is that rare freshman who has worked his way into the starting lineup when Williams wasn’t forced to put him there. And he’s a major reason why the Tar Heels shouldn’t struggle to get good shots in half-court sets like they did at times last season.
“He’s a walking bucket,” junior forward Brice Johnson said. “He makes it look so simple.”
It’s also why Williams isn’t sweating the absence of a true shooting guard on his roster. Jackson can score from inside or out. There’s a smoothness about his game. He never looks like he’s forcing the issue. He doesn’t look like he has to have the ball in his hands to be effective. In fact, he can look a little too casual sometimes for Williams' liking.
“I’d like for his motor to be a little faster, a little more aggressive, a little higher,” Williams said. “At the same time he’s very comfortable at that pace and does some good things.”
Jackson doesn’t play defense the way that Williams would like right now -- few freshmen ever do. But his 6-foot-8 frame and his length can give opponents problems without always being in the right place.
Jackson’s presence in the lineup moves junior J.P. Tokoto to shooting guard, although he's a shooting guard in name only. The difference between shooting guard and small forward in Williams’ system only has to do with what side of the court they line up.
“Last year we had Nate [Britt] at the 2 me at the 3,” Tokoto said. “We didn’t have that type of versatility at the 2 and the 3, but now we do.”
Tokoto could be primed for a breakout season of his own. He’s easily the Heels’ most explosive player in the open court and is arguably its best passer. In two exhibition games he logged 14 assists and only one turnover.
Freshman Theo Pinson, ranked No. 10 in the class of 2014, is best when attacking the basket. His shooting range hasn’t been consistent, but he could establish himself as one of the team’s better defenders.
"One of the great compliments anybody can get from me is to say he reminds me of Jackie Manuel,” Williams said. “And Theo’s a more athletic Jackie Manuel who can score so we need him to play to his strengths.”
Having Jackson, Tokoto and Pinson means Williams will never have to play sophomore Isaiah Hicks out of position at small forward as he did last season.