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Analysis: Justin Jackson better off returning to Maryland than staying in NBA draft

A day after InsideMDSports.com reported that sources said Maryland forward Justin Jackson was leaning toward staying in the NBA draft, the same website reported that the rising sophomore is now leaning the other way, tilting the equation toward his return to College Park.

If Jackson needs a push in one direction or the other, he might look more at Diamond Stone than at Melo Trimble.

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Stone, a former McDonald's All American who came to Maryland in 2015 as a potential one-and-done lottery pick and left as the No. 40 selection overall after averaging similarly solid numbers as Jackson, recently finished his rookie year with the Los Angeles Clippers. He appeared in seven games, the most recent Feb. 15, averaging 3.4 minutes.

The highest-rated recruit in Mark Turgeon's first six years at Maryland  spent more time in Salt Lake City and Santa Cruz, Calif., playing in the D-League, than he did with the Clippers.

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It's not clear whether Stone, who reportedly signed a two-year contract worth around $1.4 million, is still in the team's plans.

That's not to say Stone would have been a lottery pick, or even a first-round selection, had he returned to Maryland for his sophomore year.

Caleb Swanigan went back to Purdue as a sophomore, was the Big Ten Player of the Year and is considered a fringe first-round pick or early second-round selection.

Thomas Bryant went back to Indiana and dropped from a projected late first-round pick last year to a second-round pick this year.

Jackson made a pretty good first impression for NBA coaches and front-office personnel in Chicago last week, After the scouting combine, theringer.com lists Jackson as going No. 27 overall.

One unnamed NBA executive who was in Chicago last week said Monday that Jackson has "good size and athletic versatility." Asked his impression of Jackson's performance at the combine, the executive said: "First day he struggled. Game 2 [Friday] he was more effective. Did enough to be noticed but didn't really stand out. Solid two days."

Said another NBA executive, who also requested anonymity: "Justin Jackson looked overmatched. Talented, but not ready."

Though it was probably not a consensus, the feeling is that Jackson would benefit from another year in college and would likely be a first-round choice in 2018 if he improves on his athleticism and ballhandling skills as a sophomore.

There is a risk, as Trimble learned after he couldn't back up his sensational freshman year, when he played most of the sophomore Big Ten season injured, or last season, when he struggled in a more hybrid role while sharing the point with freshman Anthony Cowan.

An interesting comparison: As a freshman, Trimble shot 41.2 percent on 3-pointers (61 of 142). When that number dropped precipitously to 31.5 percent (58 of 184) as a sophomore, many blamed the hamstring Trimble hurt in early January; healthy last season, Trimble shot just 31.7 percent (58 of 183).

Trimble returned to College Park only after a disappointing performance in Chicago last spring, taking his name out of the draft hours before the deadline. He told reporters at this year's combine that he knew all season that he planned to forgo his senior year.

While Trimble returned to a team two years ago that never seemed to jell – one that had too many players trying to impress NBA scouts –  Jackson would go back to a team that will be built around the 6-foot-7, 225-pound Canadian and fellow rising sophomores Cowan and Kevin Huerter, who appear to be more selfless and team-oriented than some of their recent predecessors.

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Jackson still has until May 24 to decide whether to withdraw his name, but InsideMDSports reported he might even cancel workouts scheduled for later this week with the Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Lakers and announce his return to Maryland.

One positive sign: Jackson was reportedly on campus Monday getting ready for final exams.

If he does come back for his sophomore year, it seems likely that it will be his last as a college player. With the Terps seemingly positioned to sign one of the nation's top recruiting classes in 2018, Jackson's departure a year from now would certainly not be as big a hit to Turgeon's team as it would be now.

And Jackson would probably be in much better position to be a solid first-round draft pick rather than following Stone as the latest cautionary tale coming out of College Park.

don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56

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