Last year, the NCAA instituted rule changes allowing underclassmen to test their NBA draft stock without hiring an agent in order to learn more about where they stand. Players were able to go to workouts with league teams and to the combine in Chicago, the better to get first-hand perspective from NBA talent evaluators; ten days after the combine, they had a choice: stay in the draft as a professional, or return to school.
A number of high-profile college basketball players, from Melo Trimble and Nigel Hayes to Josh Hart and Caleb Swanigan, benefitted from this change, going back to campus and incorporating NBA feedback into their off-season training regimens, but arguably no player took greater advantage than North Carolina's Justin Jackson.
Jackson became the best player on an eventual national championship team. More importantly, at least to NBA eyes, the six-foot-eight wing and former five-star high school prospect improved his game on both sides of the ball, going from a potential undrafted free agent to a likely first-round draft pick in June.
How did Jackson do it? Largely by fixing his three-point jumper. The highest-rated player from his prep class still playing in college basketball, Jackson always possessed a killer midrange game. NBA scouts want archetypal "three-and-D" wings, capable perimeter defenders who can hit enough shots from deep to space the floor for lead ball-handlers.
The "biggest thing" Jackson says league officials told him last spring was "just that I had to shoot more consistently." So Jackson went about doing that. Only he swears he didn't make any major mechanical changes to his shot. There was no grand fix. He just, well, practiced.
"That's the funny thing," Jackson told VICE Sports. "All the stories came out trying to figure out what happened to my shot, and it's really the same exact shot; it's just going in more. It was just a bunch of repetition. I can say, my first two years, I don't know that I put in as much time as I did in the off-season this past year. They always say it's muscle memory, and whenever you do get that many repetitions up that's really what it is."
Reviewing film, it's easy to see what Jackson means. A lot of the small, subtle, and important shifts in his shooting come from increasing his confidence and improving his muscle memory. If you watch Jackson's jumpers from the 2016 season, he's a shooter without much rhythm. The problems start with his footwork. In two of those three shots, he hesitates slightly as he brings the ball down to his waist because he's catching it either flat-footed or between his hop. That, in turn, leads to him being off-balance, which is readily apparent in how different his landing spot is on each shot.
Jackson's upper body, meanwhile, is noisy. There's a lot of unnecessary motion and a bit too much off-hand interaction with the ball, leading to an inconsistent release point, which sometimes flattens out the arc of his jumps.
In 2017, his shooting got much cleaner. Jackson's footwork is improved; he's catching ball on the hop, and allowing himself to get into rhythm, which helps his balance. His right hand is getting under the ball better, and his off-hand is less involved. There's a bit less overall motion going back toward his face, which allows for a more consistent release at the 90-degree elbow point, which shooting instructors love to see.
All of these improvements are the result of extra work, and not a total shot overhaul. The effort paid off: Jackson attempted 72 more three-pointers this season than in his first two years combined, and his percentage jumped from 29.2 percent to 37 percent. The uptick also has helped his excellent midrange game—something that could really help him attack closeouts in the NBA, where there is more space between the three-point line and the rim.
"I feel like (players) try to run me off the line a little more," Jackson said. "So that's when I'm able to get into the midrange and try to make a play. I think always having that kind of dual threat, of being able to shoot from the outside as well as being able to make a play from the inside, definitely helps."
Of course, there's a second part of being a three-and-D player, and Jackson has improved his defense, as well. He gets caught flat-footed far less often, allowing him to react better to off-ball movement and get better leverage when fighting through screens. This type of improvement has made Jackson more effective when guarding smaller players, as he showed during the NCAA tournament against dangerous guards like Nigel Williams-Goss, Tyler Dorsey, and Malik Monk:
"I think my length helps a lot," Jackson said. "It always helps being six-eight guarding a two or a three that usually is not six-eight."
Jackson's high hips, and limited lower-body strength mean that he projects as more of shooting guard and small forward defender in the NBA than a player who can switch between small and power forwards. It's possible, however, that his length could help him move down to guard fours as he ages and puts on strength. A team drafting Jackson could end up with a mature role player who can make a positive impact as a rookie and become a more versatile defender in the future.
That matters. Players who can switch positions give franchises greater freedom in how they build their rosters. Those teams can take more risks, because they aren't as locked into having to select certain player types out of sheer need. The more ways you can potentially improve your roster, the better your odds of actually doing so.
Put simply, a skilled perimeter player who stands six-foot-eight is more valuable than one who stands six-foot-five, and that's pretty much the difference between being a potential second-round draft pick like Allonzo Trier and a likely top-25 pick like Jackson.
Heading into the college season, many NBA evaluators believed that Jackson was a fixed quantity: highly skilled, somewhat limited athletically, can't hit outside shots. By taking league feedback and working hard on his jumper and footwork, Jackson rewrote his own scouting report. That should be a sign that the NCAA's rule change was overdue, and Jackson should serve as an example for others. Listen to scouts, work even harder on your game, and it's possible to take a leap and make better money.
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