Ever since Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon announced in late December that Justin Jackson would be sidelined for the remainder of the season with a torn labrum in his right shoulder, the sophomore forward’s NBA future seemed to be teetering.
After a standout freshman year during which he was second on the team in scoring behind Melo Trimble and made 43.8 percent of his 3-point shots, Jackson appeared out of sync offensively for most of the 11 games in which the 6-foot-7, 225-pound Canadian forward played.
As his 3-point shooting dropped to 25 percent, and he became the Big Ten’s only preseason first-team pick to see his scoring dip into single digits (9.8 points a game), Jackson’s stock among NBA scouts fell precipitously. As recently as last week, one unnamed NBA executive said Jackson would likely go undrafted.
“The G League is is probably his route,” the executive texted.
The G League still might be in Jackson’s future, but for now, a player who showed his ability to shoot long range as a freshman and was one of Maryland’s best two-way players when fully engaged — he did have a tendency to disappear for long stretches — will get his opportunity in the NBA.
Selected 43rd overall in Thursday night’s draft by the Denver Nuggets, who immediately traded him and a future second-rounder to the Orlando Magic for the rights to No. 41 pick Jarred Vanderbilt, Jackson should get a chance to compete for a roster spot as a rookie — and possibly a place in new coach Steve Clifford’s rotation.
Jackson’s biggest competition looks to be fellow rookie Melvin Frazier, a 6-6 forward from Tulane who was taken with the No. 35 pick. Before the draft, Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said “the odds are a lot lower” for second-round picks to become rotation players right away.
“But we spend a lot of time on those picks and pore over them and bring in dozens and dozens of kids,’’ Weltman told NBA.com. “We value those [second-round] picks and we hold ourselves to a standard that we expect those guys to become players for us.’’
There is still some question about whether Jackson is too small to play power forward in the NBA and not athletic enough to play small forward despite being measured at the scouting combine — where he didn’t compete because of lingering soreness in the shoulder — with more than a 7-3 wingspan.
Asked at Friday’s introductory news conference whether he sees himself as a small-ball power forward or a player who can’t be identified by position, Jackson said: “I see myself as a positionless player, just because of how well I can impact the game without necessarily scoring. I can do a lot.
“I can rebound, I can push the ball in transition. I enjoy finding people. I’m unselfish, I feel like that’s one of my greatest qualities. I can knock down a shot. I can space the floor. I can also attack closeouts. There’s a lot I can do. It just doesn’t matter. Whichever way Coach wants to use me I’m going to do my best to impact the game from that spot, regardless of role.”
What has been the biggest problem the past seven months — the condition of his right shoulder — is still up for debate.
Jackson has said he even had some discomfort during his freshman year and that he reinjured it during a preseason weight training session last summer. After missing his first nine 3-pointers over the first four games as a sophomore, Jackson appeared to lose confidence.
Except for when he shot 8-for-13 overall and scored 20 points in a 92-91 overtime win at Illinois in the Big Ten road opener Dec. 3, Jackson struggled on offense. When he was shut down for the season after consulting with his family over winter break, Jackson was shooting 36.6 percent overall and committing nearly three turnovers a game.
“My shoulder feels great," Jackson said at Friday’s news conference. “Honestly some days I forget I had the injury. I’ve been working ever since I got cleared a couple of months ago. It’s just like I hit the ground running, three times a day, trying to get back to the player I know I can be. At the end of the day, it’s all about confidence and what’s going on up top [in my head]. I’m ultimately confident in myself, confident in the organization that took a chance on me.”
Despite the fact that he was once been projected to be a potential first-round pick after appearing at the NBA combine in 2017 before returning to Maryland, Jackson seemed to appreciate being drafted at all. He clearly had heard the speculation that his decision to put his name in the 2018 draft and sign with an agent was considered foolish by many.
“The common thing that I’ve heard from everybody I’ve spoken to and everybody that reached out to me is that being drafted is an honor and a blessing, but it’s only the beginning,” Jackson said. “It’s all good getting your name called. It’s very cool. It was an intimate situation with my family, everybody was happy.
“But I know there’s still a long road of work ahead. I’m just going to lock in and be focused. At the end of the day, everybody was just telling me that you got past the first obstacle, now we’ve got to keep work and get back to the player that you once [were].”