NCB On The Trail: Justin Jackson

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Scouting the country each year I’ll not only see players’ skills, athletic ability and basketball IQ, but I’ll also witness their character along the way. This year’s class might not have any NBA superstars at the moment, but it will have difference-makers for the college game, both in the short term as well as those who will make a difference in time because of their character traits combined with their talent.

As we wrap up the Class of 2014, here are my five final thoughts:

1. The land of the giants

[+] EnlargeJahlil Okafor
AP Photo/The Sun News/Charles SlateDuke center signee Jahlil Okafor finishes the season as the nation's top prospect.
When you look at the top of a class it's so rare to have three post players sitting in the top three spots. Jahlil Okafor, who held the top spot for much of the season, finishes the season as the nation’s top prospect. The center from Chicago is a dominating presence in the paint. A Duke signee, Okafor led his high school team to a 4A state championship and was named the McDonalds Morgan Wooten player of the year.

He is special because he scores down low in the paint with his back to the basket. His combination of size, touch and fluid footwork is too much for one defender and when he doesn’t score, he attracts a double-team, which gives his team an advantage. He operates with patience and poise and when he reads the double-team he will accurately pass out to the open man. Defensively he guards the post and is improving at ball-screen defense as he is a barrier to the rim for his team.

Myles Turner, the nation’s No. 2 prospect, challenged hard for the No. 1 position and shows a big upside. Turner, who is uncommitted, is an elite shot-blocker and scores baskets with a soft touch and range. Cliff Alexander is going to be an absolute difference-maker for Kansas with his ability to rebound, finish and block shots, and he does it in an aggressive manner. Trey Lyles is one of the most skilled post players in this group and his future teammate at Kentucky Karl Towns Jr. has franchise skill-to-size ratio. Thomas Welsh is a fundamentally sound big who will anchor the middle at UCLA.


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CHICAGO -- Wednesday marked the 37th Annual McDonald's All-American game featuring the top high school boys basketball players in the country. The game took place at the United Center, home of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls.

Best low-post player: Jahlil Okafor


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CHICAGO -- The prestigious McDonald's All American Game annually brings together the best talent in high school basketball, all on one stage. Here are a few game matchups to watch for this year's star-studded event, which can be seen live on ESPN Wednesday night at 9:30 ET.


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In order to return to the NCAA tournament, a team needs contributions from both returning players and incoming recruits. Here's a look at North Carolina and its chances of dancing again in 2015.

Quick references
2013-14 roster
2014 recruiting

Possible 2014-15 starting five:
G: Marcus Paige
G: Justin Jackson
F: James Michael McAdoo
F: Brice Johnson
F: Kennedy Meeks


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When we analyze and evaluate the skill set of today's basketball player, we speak quite often about their ability to drive to the rim and finish as well as knocking down 3-point shots.

What has been forgotten and not emphasized enough from coaches and workout coaches is their middle game. The ability to score the ball inside the arc and before one gets to the rim in tight quarters is a true gift. I would love to see today's player really work on their middle game to be a more well-rounded scorer.

Let's take a look at which ESPN 100 prospects possess the all-important middle game in the senior class.


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Want to ask ESPN RecruitingNation national recruiting director Paul Biancardi a question about basketball recruiting? Tweet it to @PaulBiancardi using the hashtag #AskCoachB.

It's a great question because early in his career he was considered a long-range shooter. Back in December, I spoke with Justin Jackson (Tomball, Texas/Homeschool Christan Youth Association) about this topic.

To become more than just a shooter, he invested quite a bit of time into his middle game. In his backyard, he has a sport court where he perfected the floater and pull-up jumper.

In fact, the 6-foot-7 Jackson has the best middle game and short game in the senior class.

Once he gets inside the arc, he elevates and rises up with long arms and good bounce, and he has a soft touch.

In time, I see coach Roy Williams running plays for him at North Carolina, and he should develop into a go-to guy. He will be a scoring threat both with the ball in his hands driving and operating in ball screens. Off the ball, watch him run off screens, which will make him hard to guard.

As of today, he is a capable 3-point shooter who will become a consistent long-range threat. His middle and short game is where he scores the bulk of his points.

Flyin' to the Hoop Invitational recap 

January, 21, 2014
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DAYTON, Ohio -- The Good Samaritan Flyin' to the Hoop Invitational is a four-day basketball showcase held annually over the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. It matched great local and in-state talent with highly ranked teams and players from across the country.

Here are a few players who stood out in this high-level and very competitive environment.

Most Explosive Wing

Kelly Oubre (Richmond, Texas/Las Vegas Findlay Prep)
2014, SF, 6-foot-7, 190 pounds
Signed: Kansas
Oubre is what a major college wing is supposed to look and play like. The No. 10 overall player in the ESPN 100 finished above the rim with flair. His explosiveness and ability to finish in heavy traffic was terrific. He draws fouls when he attacks the painted area and knocks down the deep 3, especially from the corners, with ease. Oubre will need to continue to develop his mid-range game and work to be a better on-ball defender, of which he is very capable. Overall, Oubre is a big-time wing who will find a way to contribute immediately next season for the Jayhawks.

Best Variety of Shots


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Want to ask ESPN RecruitingNation national recruiting director Paul Biancardi a question about basketball recruiting? Tweet it to @PaulBiancardi using the hashtag #AskCoachB.



UNC has a few problems this year, but so does just about every other team in college basketball. Remember, it's only January.

The Tar Heels are struggling making outside shots, 3-point shots in particular as they are shooting just 30 percent from behind the arc, as well as free throws (61 percent). None of the three players in the Tar Heels’ 2014 class -- Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson and Joel Berry -- are knockdown shooters, although Berry and Jackson are capable of hitting shots and being consistent shooters beyond the arc over time. All three are fairly good free-throw shooters, so that should help the FT percentage immediately.

The Tar Heels had early season distractions with whether or not P.J Hairston and Leslie McDonald would be eligible this season due to off-the-court issues. They lost Hairston, who was one of the better 3-point shooters in the country, and McDonald has only been average shooting the ball.

UNC’s recruiting class, which is ranked No. 4 in the country, will make a big difference next year because this is a special group. They not only bring talent, but also bring the traits that help you win. They are focused on working and winning and they all put a high value on team play over their own accolades.

Berry will bring a toughness and leadership with the ability to finish at the rim and make open shots. Jackson will put points on the board with his offensive prowess and Pinson will help on the defensive end with his super athletic ability. With everyone likely returning except McDonald, UNC will be very deep, talented and more experienced next season.
Basketball is played right through the new year, so as we look back and plan ahead let’s take a look halfway through this season at which 2014 prospects have performed best in 14 categories.

1. Best in the low post: Jahlil Okafor (Chicago/Whitney Young), Duke signee
If a team needs to score a basket in the lower half of the painted area, Okafor is the one to pass it to. He has secure hands to catch almost any pass and a soft touch with superb footwork. He also has a wide mobile body to seal his man and the patience to throw the ball back out and re-post his 7-foot-3 wing span.


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#AskCoachB: Oh Canada

December, 27, 2013
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Want to ask ESPN RecruitingNation national recruiting director Paul Biancardi a question about basketball recruiting? Tweet it to @PaulBiancardi using the hashtag #AskCoachB.



The U.S. high school game has seen a wealth of talent from Canada over the last ten years. Not only has there been a quality and quantity of players who have come into the U.S., but recently there the talent has been impactful.

Players such as Tristian Thompson (Cleveland Cavaliers), Corey Joseph, Anthony Bennett (Cleveland Cavaliers) and Kelly Olynyk (Boston Celtics) are in the NBA and Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse) and Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga) are making their mark in the college game.

The high school game has Montaque Gill-Ceasar (Ontario, Canada/Huntington Prep), who is ranked at No. 19 in the ESPN 60 junior rankings.

Not many know the name Justin Jackson (Ontario, Canada/Findlay Prep), but he’s a player to watch and is the No. 7 prospect in the ESPN 25 sophomore rankings.

His size, skill and his versatility make him special at a young age. His stroke behind the arc is smooth and he puts the ball on the deck and demonstrates body control with a soft touch to score at the rim.

I like where his game is headed he but one area that needs development is his middle game. However, he will be the next top player from Canada that will be on everyone's radar.
The high school basketball season is in full swing and some of the nation’s best are playing well and leading their teams. Others are extremely productive and having great individual performances.

There's also a small group of players who are good now with a chance of big-time growth.

As top-ranked players, they have talent. It's what they do with it that will determine their ultimate success. To reach their potential, it’s a matter of two important questions. Does the prospect have the necessary tools to perform at a high level? And will he do what is necessary from an effort standpoint to be great?

Let's take a look at players who are playing at a high level now and who have plenty of potential to be even better down the road.

ESPN No. 2 Myles Turner
The Texas native has a combination of size and skill, and he's a shot blocker with mobility. Turner was one block shy of a triple double, as he had 29 points, 15 rebounds and nine blocks last week against Homeschool Christian.


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Roundtable: Best event of holiday season 

December, 10, 2013
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Jahlil Okafor, Mike Krzyzewski, Tyus JonesGetty Images, USA TODAY Sports, AP PhotoBefore they become teammates at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski, Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones will face off on Thursday in a game televised on ESPN2.

The holiday season is a busy time for college basketball recruiters. About a month into the season, and only a couple of weeks removed from the early signing period, recruiting lists tend to be regenerated as coaches learn new things about their team and move on to new prospects.

Combine that with a variety of holiday events that feature several teams in a single location, coupled with a temporary pause in many college schedules for final exams, the next couple of weeks could very possibly be the busiest recruiting period of the high school season, and those tournaments continue past the holiday season.

With coaches out in full force, we asked our team at RecruitingNation what they were most looking forward to in the coming weeks:


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Roundtable: Finding the best fit 

November, 18, 2013
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Recruiting is the lifeblood of any successful college basketball team, but recruiting doesn’t just mean assembling the most talented collection of prospects. It’s the process by which coaches build their rosters. Talent is certainly the foundation of that process, but only the first of several layers necessary. The rest of those layers are based on fit, fit with the coach, fit with the current personnel, and fit with that program’s style of play.

Ultimately, talent is the necessary requisite for success, but only when it is joined by the ideal fit does that prospect end up turning into a great player at the college level. With that in mind, here’s a look at whom our Recruiting Nation team dubs the best fits of this year’s early signing period.


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Jackson leads North Carolina  class

November, 13, 2013
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North Carolina head coach Roy Williams announced the signing of three student-athletes to letters of intent on Wednesday.

Headed to Chapel Hill next year are three ESPN 100 prospects, including the top-ranked small forward Justin Jackson (Tomball, Texas/Homeschool Christian), the No. 4 small forward Theo Pinson (Greensboro, N.C./Wesleyan Christian) and the third-ranked point guard Joel Berry (Apopka, Fla./Lake Highland Prep).

"We are ecstatic that these three young men and their families have decided to join our basketball family," Williams said. "Each of them are talented, come from wonderful families and share a common trait in that they have a tremendous desire for their teams to do well."

The Tar Heels are ranked No. 3 in the ESPN.com RecruitingNation Top 40.

The early signing period arrives Wednesday, marking the first time 2014 prospects can officially sign their national letters of intent, turning previously unbinding verbal commitments into contractually binding scholarship agreements.

Here are 10 storylines to watch for during the eight-day signing period:

Jahlil Okafor
AP Photo/Damen Jackson via Triple Play New MediaJahlil Okafor is hoping to sign during the early signing period. Where will he end up?
1. Package-deal decision day
Word is that Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones are both hoping to sign during the early period, and that means the country’s biggest package deal should have a decision within days. All indications are that the duo still intends to go to school together, but the final destination has become unclear of late. Duke has long since been considered the front-runner, but there’s been growing chatter for Kansas, especially as it pertains to Okafor. Baylor is the dark horse, and while nobody seems to be talking about the Bears anymore, neither prospect has said they’re out of the running just yet.

2. Awaiting word from Alexander
We’re anticipating an announcement from Cliff Alexander, the nation’s third-ranked prospect. The 6-foot-8 big man took the nation by storm during the recent EYBL season and picked up offers from some of college basketball’s most prestigious programs in the process. Four of those remain in the hunt for his services. While Illinois and DePaul have been the perceived favorites, Kansas and Memphis are in the mix as well. Look for Alexander to trim one of those four off his list before his announcement -- and ultimately make his choice from a list of three final schools.

3. Early or late? That is the question
While Okafor, Jones, and Alexander are all expected to make their decisions in time to sign during the early signing period (that is, on or before Nov. 20), there is another group of prospects we still don’t know what to expect from. Justise Winslow just took his last visit, and he could be ready to decide. William Lee is another ESPN 100 prospect who could very well be ready in the coming days. Stanley Johnson was once targeting a January decision, but he now appears to be on the fence, as there has been mounting speculation that he could abandon those original plans in time to sign early.

4. What’s left for the spring?
With 87 players in the current ESPN 100 already committed and at least four more expected to make their decisions in time to sign early, we’re expecting over 90 percent of the current ESPN 100 to officially be off the board within the next 10 days. That’s an almost unprecedented percentage, leaving very little left on the table for the spring’s late signing period. The big prizes for those playing the waiting game are likely to be Myles Turner, Rashad Vaughn and JaQuan Lyle, along with any of the previously mentioned top prospects who ultimately decide against early signatures.

5. Care for a contingency plan
With so few prospects remaining on the board following this period, the major question is what happens to the programs that have gone the distance with top remaining prospects -- only to end up missing out on them. The best examples are Duke and Kansas. The Blue Devils and Jayhawks have gone head-to-head for Okafor and Jones and have passed on other talented guys as a result. Now they’re in a spot where the consequences of losing out on Okafor and Jones could be especially high, with no good contingency plans left on the board unless they’re able to score Turner, who isn’t likely to be excited about being perceived as anybody’s runner-up.

6. Competition for Kentucky
Kentucky currently has the top-ranked recruiting class in the country. If the Wildcats can hold on to that spot, it would be the fifth time in John Calipari’s six years in Lexington he has secured that distinction. The reality, however, is that it may be unlikely. And while Kentucky’s class is undeniably loaded, the 2014 group will be remembered as much for the guys who passed on the Wildcats -- Okafor, Alexander, Jones, Emmanuel Mudiay, Kelly Oubre and James Blackmon Jr. among others -- perhaps signaling a decline in what has been one of the most dominant recruiting periods for any program in recent history.

7. The Big East is back (or never left)
If this season's recruiting class is any indication, the demise of the Big East has been somewhat exaggerated. While conference realignment might have forever changed one of the country’s most historic conferences, it apparently has not done much to hurt the brand. Xavier, Seton Hall and Georgetown have all put together top-10 classes, and Marquette and Providence are not far behind. With five different programs among the top-20 classes in the country and a total of 15 ESPN 100 prospects having already popped for the Big East, the league is recruiting as well as any in the country.

8. What’s the Matta with this class?
Ohio State has the second-ranked recruiting class in the country, a group loaded with four ESPN 100 prospects and another big man who is just on the cusp of that list. Yet nobody seems to be talking about the Buckeyes. With so much attention being paid to the potential classes at Kansas, Duke and Kentucky, Ohio State has flown under the radar. The reality is that coach Thad Matta did his work early and did it well. D’Angelo Russell, Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate are all coming in next year, and Payton Dastrup is essentially joining the Class of 2016 after he takes a two-year Mormon mission. The Buckeyes have solidified their future as well as any program in America.

9. Talking about the Tar Heels
Roy Williams and North Carolina are in a similar situation. They have a trio of ESPN 100 prospects on board for next season, all ranked among the top 15 prospects in the country. However, because all three were already committed by last May, the Tar Heels haven’t been at the forefront of any recent recruiting headlines. It’s a mistake to sleep on them, though, as they have one of the country’s best scorers on the wing in Justin Jackson, a swingman with elite athleticism; an alpha-male mentality in Theo Pinson; and one of the most dependable point guards in the country in Joel Berry.

10. Mid-major impact
A quick glance at the class rankings will show that the mid-majors are once again well-represented among this year’s top recruiting classes. San Diego State, VCU and UNLV have all asserted themselves as national recruiters. Steve Fisher’s four-man class is headlined by a trio of ESPN 100 products in Malik Pope, Trey Kell and Zylan Cheatham, while Terry Larrier and Mike Gilmore lead a similar four-man group for Shaka Smart and VCU. Dave Rice and the Rebels have one of the best incoming frontcourt tandems in the country in Goodluck Okonoboh and Dwayne Morgan.

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