Sports Spectrum Magazine Summer 2021

Kings forward Justin Jackson embraces role as spiritual leader in unpredictable NBA

On Thursday night, the NBA landscape changed ever so slightly as it welcomed a brand new draft class onto basketball’s brightest stage during the 2018 NBA Draft.

Draft night is a special night for players and their families – the reason for numerous sacrifices and countless hours of hard work in the gym. For some, Thursday night was the first step into long careers as NBA superstars. For others, it will be a struggle to stay in the league and overcome labels like “bust” or “disappointment.” But one thing is guaranteed: the NBA will be like nothing they’ve ever experienced before.

Sacramento Kings small forward Justin Jackson received an early introduction to life in the NBA on draft night in 2017. After being selected 15th overall by the Portland Trailblazers, he was immediately traded to the Kings. A whirlwind of ups and downs marked Jackson’s first year in the NBA, but his faith in God kept him grounded through it all.

“For me, there was a stint in the season when I was playing a lot. I was playing well, and then I didn’t play, and then I was sent to the G-League,” Jackson said. “That was a weird time. Probably during that time, it was like, ‘OK Lord, I don’t know what’s going on. I really don’t. I know you will take care of me and so you do it and I’ll just give all I have in whatever situation I’m in.’”

Jackson’s decision to cast his anxieties on God in the face of adverse and uncontrollable circumstances freed him to play some of his best basketball. He knew he was an NBA-caliber player, and he proved it on the court. After an impressive four-game stretch in the G-League with the Reno Bighorns, Jackson found himself back with the Kings.

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Jackson has always known about God. Faith formed the foundation of the Jackson household during his childhood in Texas. His parents instilled in him from a young age the importance of having a personal relationship with the Lord, and that kept him grounded as his basketball prospects continued to rise. Jackson developed a reputation as a potent scorer. He became a McDonald’s All-American and signed to play with the University of North Carolina.

There, the growth in his faith mirrored the growth in his game. During his junior-year campaign – his final as a collegian – Jackson starred on a Tar Heel squad that won the school’s sixth NCAA championship. The victory was exhilarating as players and coaches celebrated the culmination of a year’s worth of hard work. But Jackson awoke the next morning with another feeling.

“It was kind of like, ‘OK, we just accomplished what everybody in the college world tries to accomplish and yet there was still something that I felt like was supposed to be there. Realizing that, I realized, ‘OK, yeah we can win all the championships, all the accolades, whatever, but the void that is left can only be filled with God.’”

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In the Kings’ locker room and on NBA courts, Jackson never stopped learning. He said he was blessed to have veteran leaders like Vince Carter, Zach Randolph and George Hill (until Hill was traded to Cleveland) to teach him everything they could about the NBA. In fact, Jackson said having the opportunity to form relationships with NBA veterans was the best thing about his first year.

Although Jackson admired his veteran teammates who had carved out long NBA careers, the rookie adopted the role of spiritual leader in the Sacramento locker room. He took the initiative to form and lead a Bible study with three or four other Kings players. He said he takes whatever jumps out to him from his personal Bible reading and presents it to the others.

“It’s awesome because of the guys,” Jackson said. “They’re interactive with it and honestly I don’t really end up leading it, it’s more of like I give the background or the base of the Bible study and then everybody else just kind of talks about it.”

On the court for the Kings, another year of experience for the relatively young roster — and the addition of 2018 first-round draft pick Marvin Bagley III — will help the Kings to avoid a repeat of last year’s 27-55 record.

Just as the Kings got better and better as the season progressed, so did Jackson. He appeared in 68 games and finished with averages of 6.7 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game in 22 minutes of action.

After a year of intense learning in the league and an ever-expanding confidence, Jackson said he knows just what to spend his time working on this offseason: strength, defense and 3-point shooting. And unlike last year, he also knows just what to expect from his second season in the NBA.

Bagley would be wise to stick to Jackson’s hip this upcoming season as he experiences what Jackson did only a year ago. Jackson is ready for that role.

“There are a lot of things that come at you being in the NBA,” Jackson said. “Whether it’s things with money, partying, whatever it is. There’s a lot of things that come at you and at that point you have to decide what you really want in life.”

For any Christians drafted on Thursday, Jackson had a few additional thoughts about giving God all of himself.

“A lot of times, people — including myself — fall into the thing of making Him a pocket God. When things are going good, you praise Him. You read the Bible. You pray to Him every once in a while,” he said. “But then you’ll put Him in your pocket for a little bit and not really worry about Him. Then when things go really bad, you try to pull Him back out and you’ll try to pray, ‘Lord, please help me.’ That’s just not the type of God He is. He’s a full-time or a no-time God.”

Jackson never wants to act as if he has life all figured out, but he wants the way he lives to shine a light toward his greater purpose to make God known.

“(I just try) to live a life where somebody can look at me and say ‘OK, there’s something different about Justin.’ Whether that’s just me not going out and partying or in the way that I do certain things or whatever it is,” Jackson said. “I am just as sinful as everybody else. That’s the way it is with how sin is. But for me, it’s trying to live and strive for that life and trying to strive for what God has planned for me.”

Uncertainty awaits in the next year for the 60 players whose names were called Thursday night, and each will seek stability in his own way. Jackson understands. He’s been there too. But he knows permanent stability is only found in God.

So as Jackson walks into an NBA arena next season with his favorite artists Lecrae or Trip Lee booming in his headphones, he will know basketball is volatile and temporary, but that God is forever. His soul will be at rest.

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