“He’s out of control.” “He fouls too much.” “He can’t shoot! Why’s he shooting threes?” “He should average double digit rebounds.” “He has to play smarter!”
Those were criticisms from the UC fan base about Cincinnati forward Justin Jackson the past three seasons. Everybody knew he was a hell of an athlete and a good shot blocker, but in many fans’ minds, Jackson was a liability out there on the court for Mick Cronin.
Jackson was in foul trouble in seemingly every game last season (his junior year). His statistics for the 2012-13 season were, in a word, underwhelming: 3.8 points per game (on 41.8% shooting from the field), 5.1 rebounds, and, maybe the most telling stat–Jackson was on the floor just 18.8 minutes per game due to that aforementioned penchant for fouling early and often.
This past offseason, Cronin sat down with Jackson to talk about what he needed from the Cocoa Beach, FL native in his senior season. Cronin told “Jack” that he appreciated his energy, his hustle, his passion. But with the makeup of the team’s roster–most notably a lack of frontcourt players–the head coach needed his senior forward to add muscle, get stronger and develop his ability to score in the paint and finish through contact at the rim. Not only that, he told Jackson he needed to step up his leadership role. Finally, Cronin urged J.J. to dial up his focus on the court. And that meant cutting down on the fouls and turnovers.
Jackson, as the story goes, sat there and listened patiently to everything Cronin voiced. His response: “Whatever you need me to do, Coach, I’ll do.” And then he packed his lunch (and many other meals), laced up his kicks, strapped on his proverbial hard hat, and got to work.
And the work has paid off.
Now, when UC fans watch Justin Jackson play, they’re singing a completely different tune. Jackson has transformed himself into a legitimate post presence, both scoring and distributing the basketball. His rebound numbers have gone up (thanks to six double-doubles) while his fouling has gone down (those two things are probably related, huh?). His ability to finish at the rim through contact is off the charts compared to what it was in the past, and it shows in the fact that his field goal percentage has skyrocketed from 42 to 55 percent. The 6’8″ senior is a force to be reckoned with, and there’s no way in the world Cincinnati is sitting at 18-2 and 15th in the AP Poll this week without Jackson’s incredible transformation. Jackson, in my mind, has been the Kenyon Martin of the AAC.
Jackson has clearly been the catalyst for the current 11-game winning streak the Bearcats have enjoyed. He’s won AAC Player of the Week three times already, and his numbers have escalated: 11.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2 assists, 3.5 blocks and 2 steals per game. That 18.8 minutes per game from last season has shot up to 27.1 in 2013-14.
Beyond that, as surprising as this probably is for UC fans who wrote Jackson off in the past and haven’t seen him play in person much this season: People are starting to talk about “Jack” as a potential NBA player now. Cronin himself has talked about it openly more than once, including after Thursday night’s win over UCF. When a media member asked him if Jackson can play at the next level, Mick replied, “Oh yeah. I just think a team needs to give Justin a chance. And when the season’s over he continues to focus on gaining weight…somebody gives him a chance, somebody that needs somebody to do all the dirty work, and be the junkyard dog- Ben Wallace or Jerome Williams or (Kenneth) Faried or one of those types of guys. Help him gain fifteen more pounds…and turn him loose.”
It’s often said that when you watch a college basketball game live, and in particular when you have a seat close to the action, you can clearly tell which guys are NBA players. They just have a different look. They’re a cut above the rest athletically, or with another specific skill. But you can just tell. I was at the UCF game Thursday night, with floor seats. Row 1, Section VIP (thanks to my buddy JD!). My shoes were ten inches from the baseline/sideline corner right across from Cincinnati’s bench. I had a great view. The game is so physical, so fast. These guys are phenomenal athletes. And out of everybody on the floor, Justin Jackson was the superior player. Not just the superior athlete, the superior player. He “looks NBA.” A friend of mine, S.P., came with us to the game who really hadn’t seen much of UC this season. S.P. was visibly blown away by Jackson’s athleticism and ability.
It’s crazy to be typing a post like this, considering the player Justin Jackson was in his first three seasons at Cincinnati. But it’s a complete testament to Jack and the coaching staff, for working extremely hard in his development, both physically and out there on the court. Give Jackson credit. He put in the man hours. He took the constructive criticism to heart. He’s embraced his role as a leader. (And he’s blocked a shitload of shots [70 in 20 games] this season!) The fruits of his labor currently have the Bearcats at the top of the standings in the American Conference and looking like a dangerous team come March. In the future, Jackson’s selflessness, passion, determination and discipline could very well land him a role in an NBA team’s rotation.