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How Maryland basketball can adapt with Justin Jackson out for the season

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The Terps have lost an invaluable piece. Life without him will be difficult, but not impossible.

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

Justin Jackson’s 2017-18 season at Maryland is over. The sophomore forward has a torn labrum and will undergo season-ending surgery. Rumors had swirled over the last couple days that he could miss more time than originally thought, and the hammer dropped on Thursday, when head coach Mark Turgeon announced the news.

After earning attention as an NBA prospect throughout the spring and summer, Jackson faced extra attention from everywhere—media, scouts, opposing game plans, etc.—early this season. His slow start on the offensive end was thought to be primarily a mental issue, a product of the hype. But Turgeon said Thursday that Jackson had lingering shoulder troubles from before his time at Maryland and aggravated them this season.

Maryland has played its last three games without Jackson. The first absence was for an illness, and the latter two seemed more like precautionary holdouts against low-major teams. It didn’t cross anyone’s mind that the last they’d see of him this season was in the Ohio game. That turned out to be the case.

This is undeniably a crushing blow.

Jackson was averaging 9.8 points and a team-high 8.1 rebounds per game before his injury. His shooting numbers—36.3 percent from the field and 25 percent from three—were underwhelming at best. But those figures were rising; in his last full game against Illinois, Jackson scored 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting. And it’s hard to call his 43.8 percent clip on three-pointers from last year a fluke, especially with the knowledge that he wasn’t at 100 percent this fall.

Entering this season, Jackson was Maryland’s highest-upside player. His length and versatility on both ends of the floor were not only appealing to NBA scouts; those traits also made him a strong breakout candidate at the college level. But now his sophomore campaign will be defined by regression and injury, which were largely intertwined.

Maryland no longer has Jackson’s potential in its arsenal, and while the roster still has plenty of talent, that’s still a tough blow. It’s never easy for a team to find a long-term replacement for its leading rebounder. Jackson bringing so much else makes it sting that much more, even if his production was lackluster in the season’s first month.

The Terps have some depth, and now they’ll need to flex it.

Basketball injuries don’t work like quarterback ACL tears; there’s no “next man up” in the same sense. Instead, it’s on every rotation player to take a step forward.

Maryland will need more from its bigs now. It’ll need more from its shooters. It’ll need more from its best scorers. Ivan Bender seems most likely to take Jackson’s starting spot, but he’s never been much of an offensive threat. Jared Nickens should see more shots, but he doesn’t have Jackson’s size or athleticism. Bruno Fernando and Michal Cekovsky will have more on their plates. So will Anthony Cowan Jr. and Kevin Huerter, who have been linked with Jackson since the trio came in as freshmen last season.

The wild card here is Joshua Tomaic, the redshirt freshman who’s seen a spike in playing time of late. Tomaic played 17 minutes in the team’s first 11 games (he saw time in five) but has averaged 16 per contest with Jackson out, with outputs of nine and seven points against Gardner-Webb and Catholic, respectively. At 6’9 with a 7’1 wingspan and relatively lanky frame, he fits the “stretch four” mold well, and he’s shown flashes of being a solid shooter and rebounder. If those flashes turn into steady production, it’ll minimize the impact of Jackson’s absence.

But Tomaic simply won’t be able to fill Jackson’s void by himself; it’d be unreasonable to expect such. That void will require a full team effort.

Jackson’s Maryland career might also be over, but that seems unlikely.

NBA Draft rumors have swirled around Jackson since the spring. He tested the waters for the 2017 draft and attended the combine in May, but ultimately opted to spend another year in college. The plan was for him to make the necessary strides, lead Maryland to some wins, raise his stock and leave for the pros. Sometimes, though, plans crash and burn spectacularly.

Jackson faded away from several mock drafts with his slow start, and a surgery of this magnitude hurts his cause even more. Rehabbing a torn labrum takes months, and even though he’d likely be healthy by the draft, it’s unclear how much time he’d have to showcase his skills to scouts. Missing all of Big Ten play won’t help. His outlook for the 2018 draft is at a low point, and it’d be hard to reach the conclusion that 2019 won’t be a better bet.

If Jackson does return, it’ll be all the more reason to be excited about Maryland’s 2018-19 campaign. The Terps are expected to return most of their underclassmen (although Fernando has started to draw NBA attention of his own), and three recruits have already signed, including five-star forward Jalen Smith. A healthy Jackson would add that much more firepower to the team.

Of course, that’s next season. The recruiting cycle lasts into late May, and there are still moving pieces well after that. Maryland’s immediate focus is on finding its best lineups and rotations for Big Ten play. After hosting UMBC on Friday night, the Terps have Penn State on Jan. 2. Then there’s a more-daunting-now-than-ever-before visit to Michigan State two days after that. Combine the road ahead with an uninspiring non-conference resume, and pessimism is understood.

Maryland can still compete in the Big Ten and make the NCAA Tournament without Justin Jackson. But it’ll be an uphill battle.