When Justin Jackson fulfilled a pledge he made to his family that he would graduate college no matter how his journey to the NBA turned out, he wanted to do it up right.
But he drew the line at going through the university-wide ceremony at North Carolina’s Kenan Memorial football stadium.
“It was a little too warm to do that,” he said.
So he did the next best thing – he walked the stage in air-conditioned comfort with his fellow sports administration majors as part of that department’s graduation ceremony.
It didn’t make it one bit less special.
The weekend in May marked the end of a long trip for Jackson, the 6-8 swingman who is entering his third NBA season and second with the Mavericks. Making good on his promise to his family already has made this a memorable offseason for Jackson, who freely admits he’s wired a little differently than some NBA players.
He puts his faith and his family ahead of basketball, no matter what.
That’s part of what made graduating so important to him.
“It was a huge accomplishment for me,” Jackson said. “I was excited to get it done, first and foremost. School is awesome, but there comes a point in time where like, all right, I’m done with this.
“But the whole weekend was awesome, to be able to hang out with my family and some of my buddies that were able to graduate with me. It was an awesome weekend. We had a ton of fun.”
While he elected not to take part in the university-wide ceremony in the Tar Heels’ football stadium, he and his wife got to go back to a lot of familiar spots. It turned out to be everything he hoped.
“I promised my family I would go back and finish, no matter how many years I had left,” Jackson said. “Thankfully, I left after my junior year, so I didn’t have much (classwork) left. But I knew I’d go back eventually, and I’m glad I did it sooner than later, for sure.”
It may have been tougher if Jackson had elected to go to the NBA after his sophomore season instead of waiting until after his junior year. And the decision wasn’t a foregone conclusion.
“After my sophomore year, I tested the water, did a couple workouts and actually did the combine as well,” he said. “But I decided to come back. I kind of went through the process twice, but I think after my junior year was the right time.”
That third season at North Carolina turned out to be a good one for Jackson. His stats skyrocketed, averaging 18.3 points and 4.7 rebounds. More importantly, the Tar Heels won the national championship that season, which helped propel Jackson to the No. 15 overall pick in the 2017 draft.
He was traded to the Mavericks in February last season as part of the Harrison Barnes deal. He’s hoping his third season in the NBA follows a similar path to that of his third collegiate season. He’s putting in the work this summer to try to turn this into a breakthrough season.
Jackson, who turned 24 on March 28, set a solid foundation after getting traded, averaging 8.2 points and shooting 37.7 percent from 3-point range in 29 games after coming over from Sacramento. Both of those were the best marks of his first two NBA seasons.
“I’m looking forward to this season,” he said. “I think we have a lot of talent and it’s going to be fun to watch everybody grow together.”
If the season can measure up to an eventful summer, Jackson and the Mavericks have plenty of reason to be excited.