UNCs Jackson, Meeks benefited from new NBA draft process

Coach Roy Williams said he encouraged fellow underclassmen Joel Berry and Isaiah Hicks to join Jackson and Meeks in applying for the draft, if only to find out what they need to work on to improve their games

Christine T. Nguyen—North State Journal
North Carolina forward Justin Jackson (44) steals the ball during the first half of an NCAA Men's Basketball Championship semifinal game at the NRG Stadium in Houston

CHAPEL HILL — If this had been any other year, Justin Jackson might be in an NBA training camp or on a D-League roster. But because the rules for underclassmen going through the league’s draft process have changed to allow players more and better opportunities to be evaluated without losing their eligibility, he’s back at North Carolina preparing for his junior season with the Tar Heels. Jackson said before going through the NBA’S predraft Combine last spring that he was “50-50” on whether to stay in school or turn pro. Although he now says that he “doesn’t even know” how close he came to staying in the draft, the 6-foot-8 forward admitted that the experience was beneficial in helping him realize that he’s not yet ready to take the next step in his promising basketball career. “I already went there knowing what I needed to work on,” Jackson said recently at UNC’s preseason media day. “But going in there, I realized the time that you really have to put into this game if you want to make it a job, whether it’s on or off the court — sleep, what I eat, the weight room, the amount of time I put out here (on the court). “It really opened my eyes as to I wasn’t doing enough. Sometimes I still might not be, but for me now, every time I step on the court I put in time to try to get better and keep my time very important.” Jackson was one of two UNC underclassmen that went through the new draft process, which extended the amount of time players have to make their decision while allowing them to participate in the Combine and individual workouts with teams to get a better read on their pro prospects. Senior center Kennedy Meeks also withdrew his name from consideration and returned to school. Unlike Jackson, his decision became more clear cut when he was not among the 70 or so players invited to take part in the Combine. “Of course, it’s kind of disappointing,” Meeks said the lukewarm feedback he received while testing the waters. “But I’ve got another year of eligibility at a great school, with a great coach and great teammates, so why not take advantage of that? I’m glad I came back.” Whether he liked what he heard or not, Meeks can benefit from the critiques he got from the coaches, general managers and scouts that saw him work out — specifically, that he get into better shape physically and become a more dominant offensive threat around the rim. The same is true for Jackson, who was told that he needs to improve his perimeter shooting and learn to be more consistently aggressive. “It was good for them,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “It’s okay to get as much information as you can. I talked to 21 different teams myself — and I think there’s only 30 — about all the guys. I do that every year.” Williams said he encouraged fellow underclassmen Joel Berry and Isaiah Hicks to join Jackson and Meeks in applying for the draft, if only to find out what they need to work on to improve their games. But both decided against it. Hicks, a 6-9 forward who came into his own last season while winning the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year Award, chose not to go through the process because was dead set on coming back to be a first-time starter for the Tar Heels. “I was surprised by that,” Williams said. “I said ‘Isaiah, it doesn’t mean we’re trying to run you out. I just want you to sign this paper. I’d already completed it for him. All he had to do was write his name in. He didn’t want to do that. “He said ‘Coach, I don’t think you should try to do that unless you’re 100 percent sure it’s what you want to do and I’m 100 percent sure I’m staying in school. He enjoys what he’s doing and he knows he’s going to be alright later on.” Berry, a sleek point guard equally adept at scoring as distributing, simply felt as though he wasn’t ready for the NBA to bother testing the waters. “I just felt like I needed to improve my shot more, my scoring off the dribble, stuff like that,” he said. “So I didn’t need the pro scouts to tell me what I needed to work on. I did send in the form to see how many teams would draft me and how many teams said I wouldn’t be drafted.” The answers Berry got back from that questionnaire made it clear what he needed to do. “If I had better feedback, I probably would have tried to go through the Combine if I got chosen,” he said. “I just didn’t want to go through that process. My goal here is to try to win a national championship and I’m going to try to use all my years to do that.” Jackson said he that he has a similar goal, although he’s