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Maryland basketball will need a strong sophomore season from Justin Jackson in 2017-18

He’s an NBA prospect, but his focus is all on the season ahead.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Maryland vs Xavier Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to our 2017-18 basketball preview. This week, we’re breaking down our roster preview by position. We’ve started with the point guards and shooting guards, and now it’s time for small forwards.

In a small-ball starting five last season, Maryland basketball trotted Kevin Huerter out at small forward in every single game. With Anthony Cowan and Melo Trimble running the backcourt, Huerter and Justin Jackson manned the forward positions for the Terps.

In case you haven’t heard, Trimble is no longer in College Park. That should mean a bigger base lineup across the board in 2017-18, with Huerter at shooting guard and Jackson at small forward. Jared Nickens, who has played both wing positions in his career, should factor into that rotation once again. Here’s how we expect things to shake out on the perimeter.

The starter: Justin Jackson, No. 21

Hometown: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
High School: Hill Academy
Year: Sophomore
Measurables: 6’7, 225
2016-17 stats: 10.5 ppg, 0.9 apg, 6.0 rpg, 43.8 FG%, 43.8 3pt%, 0.9 spg, 0.8 bpg.

Jackson started 30 of 33 games in his freshman season, finishing as the Terps’ second-leading scorer behind only Trimble. He was incredible at times and incognito at others, but he showed what makes him a realistic threat for a breakout season as a sophomore.

NBA scouts and draft gurus have been all over Jackson—who couples his 6’7 frame with a 7’3 wingspan and a versatile skill set—since he got to Maryland. At the moment, he seems like a surefire first-rounder in the league’s 2018 draft, with a chance to even be a lottery pick. Jackson tested the waters in this summer’s draft cycle, attending the combine in May. He says that process allowed him to “slow the game down” over the summer.

“Going to the combine really helped me mature and helped me to realize you can’t take any possession off, because there’s always a guy that’s working that wants to outdo you on the court,” Jackson said at Maryland’s media day Tuesday.

There’s a natural pressure that comes with being a next-level prospect, but when Jackson decided to return to Maryland, he turned his focus to this season. If the on-court results show and he takes the next step, the Terps’ ceiling is that much higher.

The backup: Jared Nickens, No. 11

Hometown: Monmouth Junction, N.J.
High School: Westtown School
Year: Senior
Measurables: 6’7, 205
2016-17 stats: 3.1 ppg, 0.2 apg, 0.9 rpg, 32.7 FG%, 34.2 3pt%, 0.1 spg, 0.1 bpg.

Nickens’ career has been plagued by inconsistency. He came to College Park as a shooting specialist, but struggled to add more to his game and has gone through a handful of shooting slumps. As a result, he averaged just 10 minutes per game last season. But he went 18-of-40 (45 percent) from three-point range in conference play last year, so that’s some momentum to ride into

Entering his final year with the Terps, Nickens knew he needed to take on more of a vocal leadership role, which has been somewhat of an adjustment. “My first year I had Dez [Wells], the following year it was Jake [Layman], Rasheed [Sulaimon], and then last year Melo [Trimble] was still here,” Nickens said. It’ll be a group effort by him, Dion Wiley and Michal Cekovsky to fill that void.

Over the summer, Nickens worked on his ball-handling and spent time in the weight room getting stronger, but his role on this team will still largely depend on his jump shot.

Other possibilities

Maryland plans to run plenty of different lineups this season, both large and small. That means players like Huerter or could technically play the three in a guard-heavy lineup, or Joshua Tomaic could fill the spot if Maryland goes big. There’s also Bruno Fernando, who played a surprising amount of small forward as a high school senior but is focusing on power forward and center as he prepares for the college level.

But this is Jackson’s spot, and he’s ready to take ownership of it.