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Maryland hoping Justin Jackson's game returns to its freshman form

Jordan McFarlane made the four-hour drive from Toronto to Syracuse on Monday to catch up with Maryland forward Justin Jackson and see firsthand what was bothering his longtime protégé.

McFarlane, who coached Jackson from the time he was about to enter the fourth grade through parts of his high school career, saw signs of a player struggling with both the physical and mental aspects of his game.

“I think it’s a confidence issue with him, knowing that it’s OK to take more than eight or 10 shots in a game,” McFarlane said in a telephone interview Thursday. “He’s really trying to be a team player. He doesn’t want to feel like he’s stepping on anyone’s toes. It’s going to take him a little bit to adjust to it, but I think he’ll be fine.”

After hitting his first two shots, including a 3-pointer, in the first four minutes against Syracuse, Jackson missed his third attempt, also a 3-pointer, with a little under five minutes gone. Jackson then stopped looking for the basket the rest of the first half.

After hitting another 3-pointer nearly seven minutes into the second half, Jackson missed his last three attempts, the final one with 4:07 to go.

The rest of Jackson’s game — he had eight points, six rebounds, five assists and four turnovers a 72-70 loss — seemed to disappear down the stretch as well with the outcome still in doubt.

Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said he has done his best to help Jackson shake out of the early-season shooting slump that continued with a 1-for-8 night in Friday’s 80-75 home loss to Purdue in the Big Ten opener for both teams.

“We’re actually running more plays for him — a lot more for him — than we did last year,” Turgeon said Thursday. “It’s been a unique four games from Jackson State [on Nov. 20]. Justin is playing better. He's getting more confident. He’s starting to see the ball go though the rim.”

Said fellow sophomore Kevin Huerter, “Right now it’s just a confidence thing. We know he still has all the ability. It’s not like he wasn’t in the gym this summer and he didn’t get better, nothing like that. He’s got to find confidence in himself to realize he’s still an NBA-caliber player.”

It isn’t clear what is affecting Jackson, since he has not been made available to the media since he scored 11 points and had a career-high 14 rebounds in Maryland’s season-opening victory over Stony Brook on Nov. 10.

While the 6-foot-7, 225-pound Canadian did other things to help his team Friday against Purdue, grabbing eight rebounds and getting four assists, the lack of a consistent third option behind Huerter and fellow sophomore Anthony Cowan Jr. has hurt during the team’s recent skid.

A player who was widely regarded as a potential first-round pick in the 2018 NBA draft — maybe even a lottery pick if he and the Terps had a good season — Jackson is now shooting a dismal 26-for-77 overall (33.8 percent) and 7-for-31 (22.6 percent) on 3-pointers.

“Coaching him through those years, he was always the focal point, so when he got to Maryland it was a bit of an adjustment because Melo [Trimble] was still there,” said McFarlane, who was the coach at the Hill Academy near Toronto when Jackson started and finished high school there.

“He had to adjust to that style of play for the good of the team. He's a good kid, he understands what it takes to win. Now that Melo’s gone, it’s like, ‘OK Justin, it’s time now. Wow, on this big a stage, now I’m being asked to grab the bull by the horns and be this leader now.’”

Maryland (6-3, 0-1 Big Ten), which has lost three of its past four games going into Sunday’s road trip to Illinois, will need Jackson to bust out of his malaise if it wants to have any chance to continue its three-year run of being one of the top teams in the Big Ten.

Huerter, who followed up a season-high 23 points in the loss at Syracuse with 19 points against Purdue, said before the Big Ten opener that he had seen indications of Jackson breaking out of his shooting slump when he hit a couple of early shots against the Orange.

“He is getting better. He is starting to find his shot a little more,” Huerter said Thursday. “Him starting to knock down outside shots gets him going because in a player’s mindset, it you haven’t seen the ball go in in a while, that’s all you’re thinking about. ‘I need to make a shot, I need to get myself going.’”

The number of shots he has attempted this season — two fewer than Huerter’s team high — doesn’t reflect Jackson’s tentative play at the offensive end. But he’s short-arming shots from close range and overshooting the basket on several 3-point tries.

Huerter said Jackson needs to play more inside-out, looking to shoot layups and draw contact on close-in shots that result in free throws to help boost his confidence.

“I think Justin is in the unfortunate situation of the type of year he had last year, going to the [NBA combine] and doing all that, teams know about him now,” Huerter said Friday. “He’s getting a lot more attention. I told you before the game, he knows his shot is not falling right now.

“We saw how well last year he can shoot from 3 (a team-high 43.8 percent). We said to him, he’s got to continue to get downhill and get to the basket. He’s so long, he‘s so strong — [when] he’s getting downhill, he’s tough to stop. He can draw fouls, he can do a lot.”

McFarlane said that he has seen Jackson struggle at times throughout his career before breaking out of a slump.

“He’s going to get through it. I’ve been through tons of battles with him. I’ve been through the AAU grind and slumps and injuries, and Justin always manages to find a way to overcome it,” McFarlane said. “I think he’ll get through it.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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