Much has been made about the incoming freshman class for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team. Amongst the hype for Tre Mitchell, TJ Weeks or Sean East, an under-the-radar player is the one that could be the key component to success for UMass.
His name is CJ Jackson.
Jackson, an Atlanta, Georgia native, did not come by way of Woodstock Academy like three of his fellow freshmen. Jackson did not even play against Woodstock. Jackson spent a four-year stint at Greenforest High School, where he averaged just over 15 points per game and four rebounds in his senior season, as well as a post-graduate year at Athens Prep in Tennessee, where he put up big scoring numbers to draw the attention of recruiters.
One of those recruiters was UMass assistant coach Lucious Jordan, who traveled down to Atlanta to see him play back in April. Jackson signed a month later.
“Me and the coaching staff built a deep relationship,” Jackson said. “Me, coach McCall and coach Lucious – those are the only two coaches that were here before I committed. They made it feel like home. That was a big thing for me. It’s what I was looking for in college.”
Jackson is a 6-foot-6 guard with an array of tools offensively and defensively. He has a good jump shot, an ability to drive to the basket, good court vision paired with passing ability and solid defense. His length at his position provides a dynamic aspect to the team that doesn’t exist anywhere else on the roster.
“He brings great shooting,” East said. “He’s a great driver. He plays good defense and he’s long so he can play at the tip of the press, he can steal a few passes — he can bring a lot to the table, it’s just a matter of when he’s going to get the chance to show it. He’s getting better each and every day. It’s going to be a long four years. It’s only the first year for us.”
The best part of Jackson’s game isn’t even what he does on the court, it’s what he does off it. Jackson is better known as the jokester on the team. He keeps things light-hearted all the time and that ability that has shown in the chemistry of the team. This group likes being together, and Jackson’s personality is a big part of that.
“That’s kind of just who I’ve been all my life,” Jackson said. “Every team I’ve been on, I’ve been the high-energy guy. Jokester is a good word for it. That’s just how I live my normal life.”
Last season, there was a divide within the team and it was difficult to build any momentum. This season, the team has gelled almost seamlessly, and the staff gives a lot of credit to Jackson and his ability to bring people together.
“He just has this ability to connect with his teammates,” McCall said. “You just see it. He’s always laughing, smiling — he’s energetic. He’s just the kind of guy you love to be around.”
That’s high praise for a freshman who came into this collective knowing none of the other people involved.
Everything started over the summer. The players came to campus to get the practices going and to get familiar with everything before their trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands. During this time, the players and coaches were the only ones on campus, and the players were forced to spend pretty much all day, every day together. It was a critical time for building the team’s chemistry.
During the weeks and months spent together, the guys learned each other’s play styles, but more importantly, learned about each other. Jackson played a big role in the team coming together and building chemistry off the court. He made team bonding activities like eating at the dining halls and playing NBA 2K enjoyable.
On the first day of media availability, Jackson used an empty water bottle to mimic the media scrum recording players for an interview. He “interviewed” Mitchell, Carl Pierre and Weeks.
“Who’s the best 2K player on the team?”
The response was typically a chuckle and the person saying that it isn’t Jackson, an answer that is still consistent amongst the team. Jackson gets very animated when the topic of NBA 2K is brought up and he is quick to point out that he has the best MyPlayer on the team — a game mode where you get to create your own player and slowly improve them.
The NBA 2K questions and discussions show just how close this team is. They bicker like brothers over it, and that goes back to Jackson.
Jackson’s off-court personality is a big reason UMass recruited him. Talent was important, yes, but his character was what made him a priority for UMass coach Matt McCall.
“Coach Lucious Jordan saw him back in April in one of the live periods there, and the people in Atlanta were just ranting and raving about him as a player and as a kid,” McCall said. “That’s the big thing with CJ, he’s just such a great kid. He has a high character and embodies everything that this culture is about as far as doing the right thing, takes care of his stuff academically and is a great teammate. He’s constantly encouraging the guys.”
Jackson has yet to make an appearance for the Minutemen due to a bothersome late-preseason knee injury. He suits up for games and is active to play if needed, but the coaches are taking a cautious approach with him.
In the meantime, Jackson has been orchestrating the bench celebrations and reactions during games. Whenever there is a hustle play or a big play created, the bench goes wild. Along with John Buggs III, who is always dancing on the sidelines, Jackson cheers on his teammates and creates a loud and fun experience for his teammates. The other guys on the bench get into it as well and the whole bench, coaches and all, go crazy for the players on the court now.
“We just want to have a high energy,” Jackson said. “If someone on the court makes a good play or makes a hustle play, we just want to get hype for them and get them hyped up so they use it in the game.”
Another big aspect of Jackson’s game is his confidence. On the court, he’s confident with his shot, his handle, his passing and his defending. It lends itself to some interesting moments during practice.
Some of the players hold shooting competitions after practices and they become a spectacle to watch. The obvious favorites during these are Pierre, who has been amongst the best 3-point shooters in the Atlantic 10 during his first two seasons at UMass, and Weeks, who comes in known for his prolific 3-point shot, as seen in the games against UMass Lowell and Fairfield and the scrimmage against Western New England, where he went a combined 11-16 from beyond the arc in the three contests.
With that said, Jackson goes toe-to-toe with them and has had success. His shooting ability is something he prides himself on and he’s not shy about talking about it.
“So on the team, if Carl is the best shooter and we’re giving TJ second, I’m taking third,” Jackson said. “Solely taking third.”
With all the excitement in the air surrounding the freshman class, it is easy to forget how well they fit together. The coaching staff did targeted players that are of high character and who mesh together well. Each player has a different skill set and they combine to play a good brand of team basketball. Jackson’s fit is as dynamic as any and when he gets himself into a game, it’ll be interesting to see how those lineups play out.
“I feel like my game fits really well with the other pieces we have,” Jackson said. “With Tre being the great big man that he is, TJ a great shooter, Sean being a great point guard, Buggs a great scorer, Preston a great defender, Kolton another great point guard — I feel like us as freshmen, we fit together really well.”
Despite not getting onto the court for the Minutemen during their strong start, Jackson has not been brought down by it all. It’s difficult for a freshman who was most recently the star of his team to be relegated to a bench role, but Jackson takes it all in stride and has a bright attitude about it. The coaching staff has certainly noticed it as well.
“As a freshman, sometimes if you’re not playing as much as other guys, you can have an attitude, be down in the dumps or come each and every day not happy about being here,” McCall said. “He doesn’t do that. He focuses on getting better and focuses on being the best teammate he can be, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for that.”
So, whenever he first sees the floor, Jackson will be ready, and he’ll do it the only way he knows how.
With a lot of energy, and a smile on his face.
Javier can be reached by email at [email protected], and followed on Twitter @JMeloSports.