The Maturation of Jumping Jack

Joe Robbins

Five games into the 2013-2014 season and it's hard to deny how valuable Justin Jackson has been to the University of Cincinnati's 5-0 start.

Anthony Barber didn't know any better. What else is a McDonald's All-American supposed to do with his team down 4 on the road in his first big college game? With the ball in his hands and a chance to cut the lead in half, Barber sped past two Bearcat defenders and lofted the ball towards the rim. What happened next would vault Bearcats' senior forward Justin Jackson onto that night's edition of SportsCenter's top ten plays.

On the surface it seems appropriate that Justin Jackson journeyed to Cincinnati from a town named after him. The guy with a contagious smile and endless supply of energy becomes the center of attention in any room he occupies. And although it's really not named after him, Jacksonville, Florida is home to the prep school JJ spent a year at. Jumping Jack (as he's aptly referred to on Twitter) will quickly correct you, though, that he's not from Jacksonville. Yes, he spent a year there, but his people are the people of Cocoa Beach - a two and a half hour drive from Jacksonville.

Jackson arrived at Cincinnati as the Bearcats came off yet another rebuilding year - finishing the 2009-2010 season at 19-16. Ranked as one of ESPN's top 100 recruits, JJ's energy and non-stop competitive nature were sure to bring a welcome addition to the Bearcats' locker room.

His first three years at Cincinnati were marred with mixed results. Time and time again, Jackson's patented Mean Face would appear after an incredible block or slam dunk, but far too often it was followed by a boneheaded mistake. The result: Jackson averaged less than 19 minutes a game his junior season. A heart-to-heart with head coach Mick Cronin was on the horizon; here's Mick's description of their offseason pow-wow:

Basically, I thought I had done a bad job coaching him. He would do anything to help our team win, but I needed him to do more than average 5 and 4... I thought he was playing out of position - a lot of that was because he was playing with Yancy... The only way he was going to be an effective player and have a career after playing basketball was to commit to becoming an inside player. - Mick Cronin, 11-25-13

So Jumping Jack went to work in the offseason, committing himself to eating better and getting stronger. The result: a 25 pound weight gain and an almost across-the-board increase in his production. Here's a quick comparison of the first 5 games of last year versus the first 5 games of this year:

Year Mins/Game Points/Game FG Attempts FG% FT Attempts FT% Rebounds Mins per Foul Turnovers Blocks
2012 17 4.8 24 46% 6 33% 38 5.7 13 7
2013 23.6 11.6 47 55% 14 43% 38 9 10 19

And the competition level in this comparison is pretty similar. Through 5 games last year, the Bearcats played 1 BCS school and 4 cupcakes - identical to this year's schedule. So far this year, Jackson has more than doubled his point production each game while staying on the court longer by avoiding silly fouls.

And Jumping Jack is still showing off that Mean Face on SportsCenter from time-to-time. Not only did his block on Anthony Barber make the top ten this year, his dunk against UMass Lowell on Tuesday did as well. 5 games; 2 national highlights; 1 greatly improved Bearcat.

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