Justin Jackson's return bolsters already loaded North Carolina

Jeff Eisenberg
Justin Jackson's return bolsters already loaded North Carolina

At a time when numerous prospects unlikely to be selected in the first round are turning pro, one with first-round potential made a savvy choice to return to school.

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North Carolina's Justin Jackson announced his decision Wednesday, gambling that he can solidify himself as a first-round pick as a sophomore while also participating in what could be a memorable season for the talent-laden Tar Heels.

Jackson's return gives North Carolina a chance to return every key player from this past season when the Tar Heels won 26 games and reached the Sweet 16. Second-leading scorer and leading rebounder Brice Johnson could conceivably still turn pro, but leading scorer Marcus Paige has already implied that he will return and nobody else is expected to leave.

North Carolina would be a lock for the preseason top 10 and a strong candidate for the preseason top five if it indeed returned everyone. The one stumbling block could be potential NCAA sanctions stemming from the academic scandal that has rocked the university and its athletic department, but it's still unclear when or if the Tar Heels will face penalties. 

The North Carolina player in the best position to leave school early this spring was Jackson, a 6-foot-8 forward projected as a late first-round pick in some mock drafts.

Jackson averaged 10.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists as a season-long starter for the Tar Heels and was playing his best basketball late in the season. He lit up Virginia for 22 points on 4-for-5 shooting in North Carolina's ACC tournament upset of the Cavs and he averaged 15 points per game and shot 72 percent from behind the arc in the NCAA tournament.

If Jackson can duplicate or even exceed his late-season performance next year, he'll very likely solidify himself as a surefire first-round pick. 

Regardless, he'll also have a chance to be one of the leaders of a North Carolina team with the potential to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2009.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!