The last time the Heat owned a lottery pick, team president Pat Riley used it to take a Houston-born forward who had just won a national title with an Atlantic Coast Conference school from the Tar Heel State.
There’s a chance Riley could do the same with the 14th pick in next Thursday night’s NBA Draft.
Justin Jackson, a 6-8, 201-pound wiry wing on North Carolina’s national championship team, worked out for the Heat last week and is one of a handful of lottery-level-talent players who could be available when Miami makes its selection.
The 22-year-old doesn’t have the same athleticism or defensive reputation that Justise Winslow had two years ago when the Heat took him with the 10th overall pick. But there’s a reason Jackson is on Miami’s radar: He can score, and he proved this past season he can take constructive criticism and use it to elevate his game.
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After being told at last year’s combine he needed to shoot at a higher clip before he could play at the game’s highest level, Jackson went back to school, took thousands of jump shots and turned himself from a 29 percent three-point shooter into a 37 percent shooter from beyond the arc. He set the school record for three-pointers made (105) and won the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Player of the Year award along the way.
“I feel like I can space the floor, knock down the open shot,” Jackson told NBA Draft Express recently. “If I get the ball and I have to go make a play, I can make a play — whether that’s for myself or for my teammates. I feel I can do a pretty good job on the offensive glass, too. But I feel I can space the floor pretty well and just create off of that.”
Compared by Louisville coach Rick Pitino to three-time NBA All-Star Richard Hamilton, the next step for Jackson is putting some muscle on his frame.
After averaging 18.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists last season and shooting 44.3 percent from the field against top-flight collegiate competition, some scouts doubt Jackson will be able to handle the physicality of an NBA schedule or guard a power forward when he’s asked to play in a small-ball lineup.
“Getting stronger is an every-day battle for me,” Jackson said last month at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. “Every single day I try to get better at that. I can get better at shooting, shoot it more consistently, rebound the ball better, defensively, ball handling, pretty much everything. But I think the one thing I’m trying to focus on is getting stronger. As a grown man I’ve got to be able to take that and still continue to play. That’s what I’m focusing on.”
Scouts have noted that while Jackson is also becoming more of a threat on the move, where he struggles is creating offense off the dribble, either out of pick-and-roll or isolation opportunities. Jackson had only 4.2 free-throw attempts per 40 minutes last season, according to NBA Draft Express, one of the lower percentages among top-100 small forwards.
Jackson, meanwhile, said he feels he’s an underrated passer and defender.
“I think I can handle the ball and pass the ball pretty well,” Jackson said. “I didn’t really have to do that much in our system because we had great point guards coming through there. But I think passing the ball and ball handling is something I can show that I have a pretty big strength in.”
During the later stages of the NCAA Tournament, Jackson helped hold Kentucky’s Malik Monk — a projected lottery pick — to 10 points on 4-for-10 shooting, Oregon’s Tyler Dorsey to 3-for-11 shooting and Gonzaga’s Jordan Mathews and Silas Melson to nine points on a combined 3-for-10 shooting.
“I think I’m doing a better job of sitting down and guarding on the ball,” Jackson said of his defensive skills. “For me, my mind-set is it’s harder for them to score if they don’t have the ball. In the NBA, it’s hard to deny a person the ball. As hard as you can possibly make them have touches, that’s what I try to do.”
Asked if there’s a player his game relates to, Jackson said: “I think body type-wise I would say [Kevin Durant] is kind of one of the guys that translates. But game-wise I’m not sure I can really compare myself to anybody.”
ESPN’s Chad Ford said scouts “are all over the board” on Jackson because of his “lack of elite athleticism and questions about the sustainability of his three-point shooting.”
Jackson comes from an athletic family. His father ran track in college and his mother played college basketball.
He also recently became engaged with former University of Florida basketball standout Brooke Copeland.
Height: 6-8 1/4
Weight: 201 pounds
Vertical leap: 35.5