Maryland assistant coach Bino Ranson jotted down two key words into his notes when he first scouted Canadian prospect Justin Jackson in an Atlanta gym during the spring of 2014. “Special talent,” Ranson wrote, and he carried that dossier with him for much of the next two years until Jackson signed with Maryland in May 2016.
Those two words encapsulated Jackson’s ability — the point guard skills hard-wired within his 6-foot-7 frame, the defensive potential in his 7-foot-3 wingspan, the power of his nine-inch hands — but Ranson could’ve easily opted to use two other words to describe Jackson that day. He could’ve went with well-traveled, because by that point it was clear that there were no physical boundaries that could hold Jackson’s talent.
He grew up in Toronto and as a teenager made a name for himself as the next potential star in Canada’s pipeline to the American college game. He turned heads on the AAU circuit in places like Atlanta, played with the Canadian national team in places like France and Uruguay. He attended prep school in Las Vegas for two seasons, then returned to Ontario to finish his prep career last season. He committed to UNLV in 2014, only to reopen his commitment after a coaching change last spring and sign with the Terrapins right before summer workouts commenced in College Park.
Nearly seven months later, Jackson’s journey has led to an entrenched starting role for the Terrapins (12-1), who will host Illinois (10-3) to open Big Ten play on Tuesday night. As freshmen continue to take the college basketball landscape by storm, Maryland has its own unique subplot, starting three rookies multiple games for the first time in the modern era of the program. And it has relied heavily on the special talents of Jackson. Here’s a snapshot: Jackson is not only second in scoring (10.8) and third in minutes (26.5), but he also leads the team in both rebounding (6.0) and three-point shooting among starters (46.3), underscoring the versatile skill-set that allows him to play effectively on both the interior and perimeter. And as he’s learned to carry his own weight at Maryland, he said he is also continuing to play for his country each time he steps on the floor this season.
“Canadian basketball is on the rise. There is a lot of talent out there that people don’t get to see because too many people don’t cross the border. There are a lot of kids working, trying to get to American high schools, D-1’s, trying to get their name out there,” Jackson said.
Jackson has long been forced to play beyond his years. He first found the game when he was in fourth grade. He was an admitted troublemaker who liked to get into schoolyard fights and generally had no direction in elementary school before a teacher suggested he try the sport as an outlet. It was quickly apparent that Jackson had rare gifts even though his size forced him to play against older Toronto youth in organized leagues.
“I remember walking into the gym and seeing this huge kid that was basically the same size, height-wise, as the coach, so I didn’t really think that was a kid that was actually on the team,” said Jordan McFarlane, who discovered Jackson as a grade-schooler and coached him on AAU teams in Ontario throughout his youth and high school years. “I asked around and I was like, ‘Whoa. We’re on to something.’ ”
At that point, Canadian basketball was thriving. The NBA had introduced teams in Vancouver and Toronto in the late 1990s, and a wave of players were chasing their professional dreams through the prep and college system in the United States. While former NBA star Steve Nash was considered one of the forefathers of Canada’s basketball presence in the American game, Jackson was energized watching players such as Cory Joseph, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins rise from the Canadian ranks and attend elite prep academies in the United States before becoming college stars and eventually first round NBA draft picks. Jackson was determined to forge his own path, even if it was a relatively unknown one within his own family.
His father David Jackson, had immigrated to Canada from Jamaica when he was 17, taking a construction job in Ontario. On a lunch break one afternoon, he met Jackson’s mother, Paulet. Both supported their son and his newfound passion for basketball, and as he continued to develop under McFarlane and his recruiting stock rose early in high school, he opted to follow in the footsteps of Joseph, Thompson and Bennett and enroll at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas for his sophomore season in 2013.
The academy was interconnected with Canadian hoops at that juncture. Jackson played under Jerome Williams, a former Toronto Raptors guard who had taken over as head coach that season, and alongside Canadian prospects Dillon Brooks and Jalen Poyser. The trio represented the next wave of Canadian college basketball stars; Brooks eventually moved on to Oregon, where he plays alongside fellow countryman and one of college basketball’s brightest stars in Chris Boucher, while Poyser eventually signed with UNLV and is leading the Rebels in scoring this season with 14.2 points per game.
“The depth of Canadian basketball has really grown in the last 10 or 15 years. I think there has always been a few plays that came to America and have succeeded, but the depth now is tremendous,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon. “It’s definitely a country with basketball on the rise.”
Jackson was originally committed to play with Poyser at UNLV, but reopened his recruitment last spring after the Running Rebels fired coach Dave Rice last spring. It was a wild and uncertain time in Jackson’s life. He had left Findlay Prep after his junior year to play his final season at Hill Academy in Ontario, which gave him the luxury of isolation close to family and a chance to develop his game away from the noise of the American system. But he knew he would eventually cross the border again to continue his career at the Division I level. He considered joining Brooks and Boucher at Oregon, but his mind continued to wander back to Maryland. Ranson’s early scouting and subsequent contact over the previous two years had left an impression. Maryland sold Jackson on the blueprint of former forward Jake Layman, who was one of four starters from last year’s team to leave for the professional ranks during the offseason.
“We just sold that he could come in, and if he trusted the process,” Ranson said, “that what he’s doing now would happen.”
Jackson has helped fill the void left by Layman, using his versatility to typically start at power forward but to also contribute at multiple positions. He has had a string of brilliant moments throughout the first 13 games — he won a starting role after a 17-point, seven-rebound performance in a win over Georgetown, helped saved his team from a near upset with 21 points against Towson and averaged 13.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in a pair of wins during the Barclays Center Classic in Brooklyn in November, which gave McFarlane and other family members a chance to travel from Toronto to watch him play. Jackson admits that he is still adjusting to both the college game and life at Maryland, but he has drawn on his experiences crossing borders throughout much of his teenage life.
“It’s always different going to a new environment,” Jackson said. “One of the reasons I came to Maryland is that it had a family sense. It helped me settle in quickly.”