North Carolina Tar Heels: Justin Jackson

North Carolina Tar Heels junior J.P. Tokoto, whose effortless athleticism in the open court has often drawn comparisons to Vince Carter, eyed freshman Joel Berry, the only defender separating him from the rim on a fast break.

It was just a meaningless basket in a long line of summer pickup games, but Tokoto has been known to embarrass defenders, thanks to his hang time. Berry was well aware of this when he went up to contest the shot.

“I’m thinking, ‘This little freshman, I’m just going to finish over the top,' " Tokoto said. “The next thing I know, I’m catching like a forearm to my chest and he’s up in the air with me.”

Berry served notice. A new breed has arrived in Chapel Hill. They're not backing down, even during an insignificant pickup game.

“It was just a shock,” said Tokoto, who used his status as an upperclassman to call a foul, even though he admitted it probably wasn’t one.

It’s kind of hard to build a reputation for being tough as a team with all those All-Americans wearing baby blue. The Tar Heels have long been perceived as leaning toward finesse well before Roy Williams' tenure began. But Carolina’s freshman class of Berry, Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson could alter that this season.

The trio arrived on campus with the kind of hunger -- better yet, heart -- that has been missing in Chapel Hill for some time.

When’s the last time a Carolina team was defined by its toughness? The 2009 national championship team? Maybe, but more often than not, the teams were defined by players who played like a bunch of nice guys who didn't have a lot of fight.

Junior guard Marcus Paige doesn't believe lack of fight will be a problem this season. He likes what he sees from the freshmen so far.

“The thing I like about them most is they all have a real tough competitive edge, you can even tell in pickup games and in drills -- especially Joel,” Paige said. “He’s such a fiery competitor, and having that on the team is going to help. Because not everyone has it, let’s be honest. Everyone wants to win, but not everyone is super-fiery and competitive and I think all three of them have that and to go with their talent, it’s going to push our team to make it better.”

It all starts with position battles. Williams could very well use a starting lineup of all returnees with Nate Britt at point guard, Paige at shooting guard, and round it out with Tokoto, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks.

But Berry will push Britt for playing time, giving Williams the option to use Paige, who led the team in scoring last season, off the ball.

Pinson, at 6-foot-6, and Jackson, at 6-8, could make a strong case to leave Paige at point guard and make Williams think about starting a big lineup with a freshman shooting guard.

“We don’t have that many natural 2s so I know that between the point guards and the freshmen coming in, there will be a lot of rotations and different looks from those two positions,” Britt said.

Tokoto has seniority at small forward, but could also end up being challenged by Pinson and Jackson, who both might be better 3-point shooters.

Paige called Jackson a “complete offensive player,” but what the trio could bring defensively has the veterans excited. Tokoto said Berry brings “physicality” that will be useful against bigger guards in the conference. Pinson has the length and quickness to guard three positions. Jackson is big enough to defend a power forward, but would likely create a mismatch for an opponent on the other end.

“They’re exactly what we need basketball-wise and talent-wise,” Paige said.

And toughness-wise, too.

Class of 2014's best shooters 

May, 6, 2014
May 6
Though the top three prospects in the Class of 2014 are big men who control the paint, there are several outstanding shooters in the class. Let’s examine the five best shooters among the incoming freshmen and one from the Class of 2015.

1. Justin Jackson, North Carolina
He started out as a 3-point shooter but has developed into a master of the mid-range jump shot. Most outstanding shooters are confident and comfortable from a certain spot on the floor, but that’s not the case with Jackson. He is equally effective and productive from a catch-and-shoot scenario as he is putting the ball on the deck and rising up to finish inside the arc or in the paint. A combination of length, balance and extension with a feathery touch will make him hard to defend.

It’s been a busy month for the top high school seniors in America.

First, it was the McDonald’s All American Game, then the Nike Hoop Summit and finally last week’s Jordan Brand Classic.

While these all-star-style games are mostly about show and only rarely about competition, they also serve as the first real opportunity that NBA scouts have to evaluate these prospects.

With the vast majority of the NBA’s 30 franchises having a consistent presence at all three events (both games and practices), we spoke to front-office personnel from five different teams to see their first impressions of the top players in the ESPN 100.

Here’s what they had to say:

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North Carolina coach Roy Williams loses James Michael McAdoo to the NBA draft and Leslie McDonald to graduation. Between the two, that’s 24 points per game and a lot of game experience you can't replace, but you can try to help replenish what's returning. UNC's 2014 recruiting class finished the season ranked third in the nation with three players in the top 20 of the ESPN 100 – No. 8 Justin Jackson, No. 10 Theo Pinson and No. 17 Joel Berry. This class will be impactful both individually and as a collective unit. They all bring different elements to next year's team that will make the Tar Heels more talented and help UNC play better as a team. Jackson will score in a very efficient manner to help take the pressure off Marcus Paige, Pinson will be outstanding in the conversion game and from a defensive standpoint if he applies himself and Berry will be a good defender and lead guard who can finish drives and hand out assists. Berry will also lead by his work ethic in practice but in reality, all three of these guys are serious about the game and are high-quality people.

Jordan Brand Classic standouts 

April, 20, 2014
Apr 20
The Jordan Brand Classic was played at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Friday.

This game is always filled with future NBA talent and usually has the No. 1 pick in a future NBA draft.

Twenty-two of the country's elite players went head to head for likely the last time before they meet again in college. There were so many impressive plays and highlights, so let's take a look at what we learned from the event.

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Roundtable: Jordan Brand Classic 

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
It has been a busy few weeks for the top prospects in the ESPN 100.

It began at the beginning of the month when they arrived in Chicago for the McDonald's All American Game. Immediately after that game concluded, some players jumped on a red-eye to New York for the Dick's Sporting Goods High School National Tournament. Last week it was a trip to the West Coast for the Nike Hoop Summit in Oregon. This week, that string of all-star events gets a fitting culmination as the top players in the Class of 2015 return to New York for the Jordan Brand Classic.

Given what we've seen, not just in the past few weeks but in the past few years, is there anything left to learn? Here are a few players whom our Recruiting Nation staff will be watching during Friday's Jordan Brand Classic (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET):

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The Jordan Brand Classic features the best talent high school basketball has to offer. Here are some of the most intriguing potential matchups in this terrific annual event, which airs Friday night at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

Tyus Jones (Duke) vs. Tyler Ulis (Kentucky)

This matchup will be the battle for who can get the most assists. Both are terrific pass-first point guards who can play fast or slow. They can make open shots in order to keep the defense honest, and their decision-making on the offensive end of the floor is excellent, as well. Ulis can apply more heat on the ball defensively, while Jones is stronger and the better finisher in heavy traffic. It will be interesting to see who makes the fewest mistakes with the ball and who will win the assist category as Jones and Ulis push each other on both ends of the floor.

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Scouting the country each year I’ll not only see players’ skills, athletic ability and basketball IQ, but I’ll also witness their character along the way. This year’s class might not have any NBA superstars at the moment, but it will have difference-makers for the college game, both in the short term as well as those who will make a difference in time because of their character traits combined with their talent.

As we wrap up the Class of 2014, here are my five final thoughts:

1. The land of the giants

[+] EnlargeJahlil Okafor
AP Photo/The Sun News/Charles SlateDuke center signee Jahlil Okafor finishes the season as the nation's top prospect.
When you look at the top of a class it's so rare to have three post players sitting in the top three spots. Jahlil Okafor, who held the top spot for much of the season, finishes the season as the nation’s top prospect. The center from Chicago is a dominating presence in the paint. A Duke signee, Okafor led his high school team to a 4A state championship and was named the McDonalds Morgan Wooten player of the year.

He is special because he scores down low in the paint with his back to the basket. His combination of size, touch and fluid footwork is too much for one defender and when he doesn’t score, he attracts a double-team, which gives his team an advantage. He operates with patience and poise and when he reads the double-team he will accurately pass out to the open man. Defensively he guards the post and is improving at ball-screen defense as he is a barrier to the rim for his team.

Myles Turner, the nation’s No. 2 prospect, challenged hard for the No. 1 position and shows a big upside. Turner, who is uncommitted, is an elite shot-blocker and scores baskets with a soft touch and range. Cliff Alexander is going to be an absolute difference-maker for Kansas with his ability to rebound, finish and block shots, and he does it in an aggressive manner. Trey Lyles is one of the most skilled post players in this group and his future teammate at Kentucky Karl Towns Jr. has franchise skill-to-size ratio. Thomas Welsh is a fundamentally sound big who will anchor the middle at UCLA.

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CHICAGO -- Wednesday marked the 37th Annual McDonald's All-American game featuring the top high school boys basketball players in the country. The game took place at the United Center, home of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls.

Best low-post player: Jahlil Okafor

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McDonald's game matchups to watch 

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1

CHICAGO -- The prestigious McDonald's All American Game annually brings together the best talent in high school basketball, all on one stage. Here are a few game matchups to watch for this year's star-studded event, which can be seen live on ESPN Wednesday night at 9:30 ET.

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Recruit and return: North Carolina 

March, 25, 2014
Mar 25
In order to return to the NCAA tournament, a team needs contributions from both returning players and incoming recruits. Here's a look at North Carolina and its chances of dancing again in 2015.

Quick references
2013-14 roster
2014 recruiting

Possible 2014-15 starting five:
G: Marcus Paige
G: Justin Jackson
F: James Michael McAdoo
F: Brice Johnson
F: Kennedy Meeks

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When we analyze and evaluate the skill set of today's basketball player, we speak quite often about their ability to drive to the rim and finish as well as knocking down 3-point shots.

What has been forgotten and not emphasized enough from coaches and workout coaches is their middle game. The ability to score the ball inside the arc and before one gets to the rim in tight quarters is a true gift. I would love to see today's player really work on their middle game to be a more well-rounded scorer.

Let's take a look at which ESPN 100 prospects possess the all-important middle game in the senior class.

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It's a great question because early in his career he was considered a long-range shooter. Back in December, I spoke with Justin Jackson (Tomball, Texas/Homeschool Christan Youth Association) about this topic.

To become more than just a shooter, he invested quite a bit of time into his middle game. In his backyard, he has a sport court where he perfected the floater and pull-up jumper.

In fact, the 6-foot-7 Jackson has the best middle game and short game in the senior class.

Once he gets inside the arc, he elevates and rises up with long arms and good bounce, and he has a soft touch.

In time, I see coach Roy Williams running plays for him at North Carolina, and he should develop into a go-to guy. He will be a scoring threat both with the ball in his hands driving and operating in ball screens. Off the ball, watch him run off screens, which will make him hard to guard.

As of today, he is a capable 3-point shooter who will become a consistent long-range threat. His middle and short game is where he scores the bulk of his points.
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UNC has a few problems this year, but so does just about every other team in college basketball. Remember, it's only January.

The Tar Heels are struggling making outside shots, 3-point shots in particular as they are shooting just 30 percent from behind the arc, as well as free throws (61 percent). None of the three players in the Tar Heels’ 2014 class -- Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson and Joel Berry -- are knockdown shooters, although Berry and Jackson are capable of hitting shots and being consistent shooters beyond the arc over time. All three are fairly good free-throw shooters, so that should help the FT percentage immediately.

The Tar Heels had early season distractions with whether or not P.J Hairston and Leslie McDonald would be eligible this season due to off-the-court issues. They lost Hairston, who was one of the better 3-point shooters in the country, and McDonald has only been average shooting the ball.

UNC’s recruiting class, which is ranked No. 4 in the country, will make a big difference next year because this is a special group. They not only bring talent, but also bring the traits that help you win. They are focused on working and winning and they all put a high value on team play over their own accolades.

Berry will bring a toughness and leadership with the ability to finish at the rim and make open shots. Jackson will put points on the board with his offensive prowess and Pinson will help on the defensive end with his super athletic ability. With everyone likely returning except McDonald, UNC will be very deep, talented and more experienced next season.

Biancardi’s Breakdown: Best for '14 

December, 30, 2013
Basketball is played right through the new year, so as we look back and plan ahead let’s take a look halfway through this season at which 2014 prospects have performed best in 14 categories.

1. Best in the low post: Jahlil Okafor (Chicago/Whitney Young), Duke signee
If a team needs to score a basket in the lower half of the painted area, Okafor is the one to pass it to. He has secure hands to catch almost any pass and a soft touch with superb footwork. He also has a wide mobile body to seal his man and the patience to throw the ball back out and re-post his 7-foot-3 wing span.

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