He’s heard it hundreds of times now, each time more persistent than the last. After big wins, after tough losses. At the podium, in the hallway. Everybody wants to know.
“Honestly, I feel like I’ve been answering the same thing all year,” he said.
Something’s different — that much is clear. Just a year ago, the North Carolina wing looked like an rangy role player whose budding potential would never blossom. Now, he’s the ACC Player of the Year. All-American honors are a mere formality, as is his spot in the Smith Center rafters. His jump shot is falling, and his draft stock is soaring.
“Obviously I’ve always said that I’ve worked on my shot and I’ve tried to get better at it,” he said. “But it hasn’t translated. So now whenever it translates, there has to be something.”
Jackson’s meteoric rise has left the country confounded, his opponents included. This season, the junior is averaging 18.3 points per game — the highest mark for a Tar Heel since Tyler Hansbrough in 2009 — and shooting a career-high 38.5 percent from deep. He’s only 10 made 3-pointers away from the single-season school record.
Is it the speed of his release? What about his footwork? His release point? His arc?
“Honestly, I didn’t change anything in my shot,” he said after a Feb. 25 win at Pittsburgh, one of the many stops on his redemption tour.
“Everybody’s asking, ‘What did you do to change your shot? What did you do?’ I didn’t do anything but just get reps up.”
But that’s too easy, isn’t it? Surely, he made some sort of fundamental change to his mechanics or maybe to his mentality. But reps don’t make the man. A jump that drastic doesn’t come from hours in the gym.
Or does it?
He wasn’t doing enough.
He missed seven shots in the national title game: five from the field and two from the line. He missed 70 percent of his 3-point shots during the season, and he missed over a third of his shots at the NBA Combine.
His shot was inconsistent. He didn’t need the scouts to tell him that — his coaches had already. For the No. 9 prospect in the Class of 2014, the numbers didn’t lie.
“If you shoot two years and shoot 29 percent for two years, that’s called reality,” head coach Roy Williams said. “And I don’t care how much you think you’re working — it’s not working.”
This was a job, and Jackson wasn’t putting in his time. So he returned to Chapel Hill from Chicago and went to work.
The teams he interviewed with had two main concerns: strength and shooting. His shot was well documented, but his body needed work. Finish in the lane, fight for your spot, be physical with your man. For a 6-foot-8, 210-pound swingman, it was a big ask.
Early in the summer, weights weren’t mandatory, but Jackson still met with strength and conditioning coordinator Jonas Sahratian in the afternoons. Different exercises, different muscles. There is no favorite in the weight room.
“Honestly, it was just whatever Jonas threw at me,” Jackson said. “Most of the time, it wasn’t what I wanted to do. And it was hard.”
So was improving his shot.
He studied himself on Synergy from the previous two seasons, searching for a sign. The only discernible difference between misses and makes was the arc: When his shot fell flat, it had no chance.
But it was hardly a flaw in his mechanics.
“There was nothing wrong with his shot ... ” Williams said. “It just didn’t go in.”
Assistant coach Hubert Davis — UNC’s career leader in 3-point percentage — aided Jackson in the offseason. But consistency was something only the gym could address.
Before, volume was enough. But he needed structure. NBA teams don’t care about shots — they care about makes.
So, Jackson took what he learned at the combine and put it into action. He adapted the “Atlanta drill” from the Hawks to simulate shooting off screens and on the run, and he switched between stand-still shooting and game-like situations.
Ten makes from each mid-range spot, then pull-ups, then free throws. Seven spots along the 3-point line, nine makes at each. More than two misses triggers a reset. More than two resets? Try again.
“There were some nights where we spent a couple hours in the gym because we’d get almost all the way around, to the sixth-out-of-seven spot,” said Chase Bengel, a UNC student manager. “You get eight out of 10, and he’d already had his reset. And we’d start back over.”
Soon, weights were mandatory, but Jackson was already in a rhythm. At 7 a.m., he had a two-hour date with Sahratian, then class — he is a student, after all — then back to the gym with Bengel and roommate Luke Maye. An hour in the afternoon and an hour in the evening, with pick-up in between. Another hour that night, if he was lucky.
“That just kind of became our ritual,” Bengel said.
The prize awaiting Jackson was at Old Chicago, which offered $2 pizzas after 10 p.m. But only if he could make his shots.
“There was never a time where we left the gym because he couldn’t finish the drill,” Bengel said. “We were gonna stay there until we finished the drill, whether it took two hours or 30 minutes.”
The drills carried into the regular season — an hour before practice and an hour after. So, too, did the shooting touch.
In his first game, he set a new career high with 27 points and tied his career high with four 3-pointers against Tulane. A month later, he buried seven triples against Davidson. Two games later? A career-high 34 points against then-No. 6 Kentucky.
“Everybody thinks they’re working hard, but nobody’s really working anywhere close to what they can do until somebody pushes them or they see a difference,” Williams said.
“And I think Justin sees a difference.”
It felt like practice. A catch-and-shoot corner three in an 18-point first half against Virginia drew inspiration from Atlanta. A fading shot to beat the shot clock against Pittsburgh came from the third spot in the 9-of-10 drill. The dagger against Duke to swing the momentum? He’d done it months earlier.
“There’s not a shot on the court we haven’t practiced,” Bengel said. “There’s not a shot he hasn’t put in the time to make.”
Maybe he’s right.
Maybe the recipe for an All-American is a few thousand reps and $2 pizzas. Maybe a little more arc, a little more confidence and a little more freedom is all he needed to go from a fourth option to a formidable scorer.
In his Hall of Fame career, Williams doesn’t remember any player working on his shot more than Jackson did this summer. And for the Tar Heels’ leading scorer, it’s all muscle memory.
“It’s good to see hard work kind of paying off,” he said.
Kind of, because the work isn’t over. The Tar Heels (26-6) could still face three teams at the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn, where No. 6 UNC plays Miami today at noon. Beyond that, six more wins separate Jackson from the national title that his team fell seconds short of last season.
But Jackson has put in the work. And maybe that’s all it takes.
“The answer to the question is just the hard work ... ” Bengel said. “There’s no science behind it — it’s just hard work.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.