In a draft prospect interview series at NBPA headquarters in New York City, Justin Jackson discussed recently proposing to his high school sweetheart (Brooke), reflecting on the national championship, becoming an NBA professional, assisting people with special needs inspired by his sister, leaning on faith as an important aspect of his life, thinking ahead to draft night and much more.
NBPA: Congrats on two rings.
Justin Jackson: Ah, yeah!
NBPA: Tell me about getting engaged.
JJ: I just started thinking about it and I felt like it was the best time. So it was a quick turnaround from the national championship to doing that. I was happy when she said yes for sure.
NBPA: What beach were you at when you proposed?
JJ: Seaside beach, which is like 40 minutes from Destin, [Fla.], basically. It’s somewhere that me and my family have gone to vacation for like the past six years. So I had a trip already booked because she goes to [the University of] Florida, so I went and visited her. And then it was like a four-hour drive to Destin. So it ended up being a good surprise.
NBPA: It was a walk on the beach and you just did it?
JJ: We were taking family photos on the beach and then the photographer asked if we could just take a couple of just me and her. As we were walking off, that’s when I did it.
NBPA: Did the national championship give you more motivation to do it?
JJ: Honestly I felt like it was the right time anyways, especially going into this journey that I’m about to be on. So whether we won or not, the plan was already kind of set. Obviously it was a little more joyful going into it.
NBPA: You got a ring, now she has one. So it’s a great connection.
JJ: [laughs] Exactly.
The mothers who are in this picture should be honored every day. I am so blessed to have such strong women to celebrate!!! To my unrivaled mother, your grace, guidance, and love has enabled me to reach the place I am today. You are such a wonderful illustration of what God's heart for His children looks like and I am so thankful that He chose me to be your son. Love ya mama!!
NBPA: As you look back on the championship run, what stands out the most?
JJ: Probably the way we had to really work through some of those games, how we almost lost to Arkansas, but were able to pull that one out. The Kentucky game, I always say everybody knows about the shot, but how we had to battle through that game. And then going into the Final Four, having to battle against Oregon and Gonzaga. Just how much that we really had to grind through those. There were really no easy games.
NBPA: What have you saved from the final game, like your shoes or jersey?
JJ: So I have both my shoes. It’s funny—I was actually going to sell them and I told my mom, and she was, like, “What? I want them,” because I write a little message on the back of them. She was, like, “I think that would be good for the family to have.’ So I still have my shoes. I’ll get all of my jerseys one of these days from our equipment manager.
NBPA: UNC has its own basketball Hall of Fame on campus. Is there anything of yours that you envision there?
JJ: It would be cool, but I’m sure there’s some other guys. I think Luke [Maye] needs to have something in there for the shot he hit against Kentucky.
NBPA: From attending the Chicago combine to meeting with teams, do you think winning on the big stage has given you momentum in the pre-draft process?
JJ: Yeah. If you win, that’s what they’re looking for. They’re looking for winners, so there were some more than others that mentioned how they were looking for somebody that knows how to win, knows how to do certain things. So that definitely helps a little bit.
NBPA: How have you been selling yourself in front office interviews?
JJ: My biggest selling point is that, for one, you’re not going to have to worry about me off the court. You’re not going to have to worry about me not working hard. I’m going to try my best to be one of the hardest workers. And then with all of my skill set, I try to sell that as much as possible.
NBPA: Do you feel like a professional now or it hasn’t hit you yet?
JJ: I kind of feel it a little bit. Everything that I do now is trying to pursue this job that I’m trying to get. Before it was I’m a college athlete at North Carolina. If I post something on social media, it’s out of fun or whatever it might be. Now, it might be trying to get my brand out there. And so little things like that I think are starting to kind of hit me a little bit.
NBPA: What’s important for you with your brand off the court and goals in the community?
JJ: My whole goal in life is try to make this world a better place. I love special needs. I’ve got a little sister with special needs. And faith is huge for me. So that combined with something maybe at a local church, or something for the homeless, little things like that are what I’m interested in.
NBPA: Tell me about your sister.
JJ: Her name is Jada. She’s got a mild form of cerebral palsy. She was born real premature, so she’s behind where a 13-year-old would be. But she’s definitely a motivation every day because she wakes up every day happy. So that’s neat to see and it’s giving me some inspiration as far as trying to do some things.
NBPA: How do you guys enjoy your time together?
JJ: We’ll sit down and watch a movie together. We’ll do little things like that, but usually it’s all as a family. That’s kind of how we like it. Family has always been huge for me.
NBPA: Was she at the championship game to celebrate with you?
JJ: She actually was. Actually my whole family was there, including some of my grandparents, my aunt and uncle. So we got to all celebrate together.
NBPA: You mentioned faith. How do you incorporate that into your basketball career?
JJ: The blessings that I have as far as my skills and everything like that, I feel like that’s from God. And so if I don’t do everything I possibly can with those gifts, then that’s a disgrace to him. I listen to some rap, but there are also Christian rappers that I might listen to, like Lecrae. I’ve interacted with him a little bit and I love what he does. I also pray before every game and I usually try to read my Bible some time before the game. So basketball is incorporated throughout my life and throughout my faith.
NBPA: What’s the root of faith and the church for you?
JJ: It’s definitely my family and throughout the years, and you go into college and you hit some things that you’ve never really dealt with before. So going into college, I thought that I was strong, but I realized very soon that I wasn’t. And sometimes God kind of slaps you in the face every once in a while, and makes you realize what you’re really supposed to be doing and things like that. So over probably this past year, my individual relationship with him and my faith has grown a lot stronger as well.
NBPA: Anything fun about you that people don’t know?
JJ: I’m probably boring in most peoples’ eyes [laughs]. I just like to go to the movies, like to eat, just like to hang out and watch TV. So that’s about it.
NBPA: So what’s your training schedule been like?
JJ: I’m training in Chapel Hill. I lift at 9 a.m. for about an hour, work out with my trainer for about an hour and a half, and then play pickup with some of the guys. Later that night, I’ll go back and shoot on my own. I’m just trying to focus on getting stronger and on all aspects of my game.
NBPA: With so many UNC players having been in the NBA, have pickup games with them on campus been impactful for you?
JJ: Yeah. Danny Green’s come back a few times, Wayne Ellington has come back, Rasheed [Wallace] has been around. He’s older, but he’s still out there trying to give pointers to our bigs and things like that. So the pickup games are huge during the summer, especially whenever you’re a freshman and trying to learn all that stuff. Now, I talk to Brice [Johnson] and Marcus [Paige] a lot about some of the things they go through in the NBA.
NBPA: In those games, do you have a highlight facing a former Tar Heel who played in the league?
JJ: It was at coach’s camp where there’s a former player versus current player game. And I had like 14 points. I hit a three and Marvin [Williams] was guarding me. It feels good to score against guys like that. They’re at the point where you’re trying to get.
NBPA: Your style of play has been referred to as “throwback.” What do you think about that?
JJ: I’ll take it. I wear No. 44 because of George Gervin, so that’s a serious throwback. But as far as my game, I love to score, I like to shoot the ball. I think those aspects are good. I think defensively I can do some things, and I think that’s something that I’ve gotten better at over this past year. And if I can continue to do that, I think I’ll be alright.
NBPA: From Gervin to now, what current players do you observe?
JJ: A guy that sticks out in my head is a guy like Nicolas Batum. He’s a bigger wing player that can do a little bit of everything. Also, a guy like Otto Porter. I think a lot of guys jump straight to KD [Kevin Durant] or LeBron [James], or somebody like that. And for me, I’m trying to look at somebody that I can kind of translate my game to right away.
NBPA: How did you develop that off-the-ball court awareness, with backdoor cutting and moving without the ball?
JJ: For me, I’ve always tried to be in the best shape because I’m not the strongest guy, I’m not the most athletic guy. So I knew if I was the one that was moving the most, my defender’s going to be more tired. So I’d be able to have more opportunities to score, and plus guys aren’t always disciplined on defense. So if I catch a guy looking at the ball, I might make a cut. I might try to read my defender off of a screen or something like that—just try to be smart with the game.
NBPA: During the playoffs, what did you study?
JJ: Now, it’s kind of transferring from a fan to somebody that’s seeing, Where can I fit in? How can I help that team? Can I space the floor good enough? Or if I see somebody make a cut and get a backdoor layup, it’s, like, OK, I can do something like that. Or defensively doing things like that. So my mindset has kind of changed to now it’s where I might be one of these days.
NBPA: Looking ahead to the draft, have you started thinking about the celebration that night?
JJ: It’d be a blessing to be in the green room. Hearing my name called is a dream and something that I’ve been working for ever since I started playing basketball really. And then the next day flying to wherever I get drafted to and going through that stuff, I think that’ll be great. That’ll be an unbelievable feeling. I think up until this point, except for the national championship, I think that’ll definitely be the best and biggest thing I’ve ever accomplished.
NBPA: What kind of suit will fit your style?
JJ: I’m not too flashy. It’ll be simple in peoples’ eyes. But I’m going to try to look as sharp as possible.
NBPA: Any Carolina blue in the suit?
JJ: I don’t know if I could do a blue suit [laughs]. That might be a little too bold for me, but we’ll see. I might be going through a guy that has connections with North Carolina and gets a lot of stuff for the coaching staff there. And who knows? There might be some type of baby blue or Caroline blue in there.
NBPA: The moment you hear your name called, walk up the steps and shake the commissioner’s hand, what do you think will be going through your mind?
JJ: I don’t really know what kind of thoughts I’ll have. It’ll be of thankfulness, it’ll be an honor. It will be a dream come true walking across the stage and shaking his hand. I think the biggest thing will probably be getting that phone call, whether they call me or whoever they might call, saying, “Hey, we’re going to draft you.” I think that’ll be probably the biggest thing.