After a halftime pep talk, GG Jackson explodes for 22 points in win at Georgetown

Joshua Boucher/jboucher@thestate.com

For all of the national attention GG Jackson gets — from NBA scouts, fans and basketball junkies — there’s a surprising lack of ego from the freshman phenom. Jackson carries himself less like an NBA star-in-waiting and more like the gregarious, fun-loving 17-year-old that he is.

In the moments before the Gamecocks (4-4) took the court Saturday for their 74-71 overtime road win at Georgetown, Jackson walked over to head coach Lamont Paris and wrapped his arms around him for a warm hug. Then, just before tip-off, Jackson walked over to each member of the Georgetown starting five and gave each Hoya a fist bump.

The son of a pastor, Jackson doesn’t have an inauthentic bone in his body. His emotions are as easy to read as the No. 23 on his jersey. Jackson opened Saturday’s game with a sense of joyful gratitude, like he almost always does. But by halftime, that wide smile of his had been wiped from his face.

Though Jackson — the highest-ranked recruit in USC history — has mostly lived up to the hype in the early portion of the season, the 6-foot-9 forward struggled through 60 minutes of basketball in Washington, D.C.

Playing in front of 16 NBA scouts and executives in Wednesday’s 24-point loss to George Washington, Jackson shot 4-for-17 from the field and tweeted an apology to Gamecocks fans after the game. Through 20 minutes on Saturday, Jackson was even worse, missing all five of his first-half shots and going scoreless. His smile faded more with each clank off the rim. Jackson kept his head down, slouched on the bench, shook his head as he ran up and down the court.

Paris pointed out the negative body language to Jackson during halftime, telling him: “That’s bull----.” Why shouldn’t Jackson be confident?

Then assistant coach Tim Buckley found Jackson in the locker room and reminded him of the dominance he showed during the summer showcase circuit.

“I need that GG,” Buckley told Jackson. “I need the one that’s always smiling and laughing and getting after it.”

Say no more. In the second half, Jackson kept his head up, and he watched shot after shot after shot fall through the cylinder.

After whiffing on all five attempts in the first half, Jackson sunk his first six looks in the second — including back-to-back deep 3-pointers. The freshman showed why NBA scouts flock to his games, displaying all the weapons in his offensive toolbox. Looking like the top NBA prospect that he is, Jackson created multiple shots for himself with turnaround jumpers and by posting up against Georgetown big men, spinning off of them for easy layups.

In all, Jackson scored 22 points in the second half — matching his career high — and he made nine of his 13 field-goal attempts. With USC employing a smaller guard-heavy lineup, Jackson also pounded the glass for eight rebounds, with three key offensive boards that extended possessions. Without Jackson’s effort, the Gamecocks likely wouldn’t have forced overtime.

“He’s really talented, and you can hear him. He’s mature,” Paris said after the win. “You have a 17-year-old kid that came up here in this environment, in this kind of game, and acknowledge the fact that his body language in the first half wasn’t what it needed to be.

“And I reminded him also. But to acknowledge that as a 17-year-old and take responsibility for it — that’s uncommon. What I think is going to allow his basketball to go to a really, really high level are two things: His ability to learn ... and the humility that he has as a player.”

Jackson said he felt responsible for USC’ struggles in the first half against the Hoyas, who led by 11 points at halftime. But his renewed vigor in the second half undoubtedly propelled the Gamecocks. In the final seconds of regulation, Jackson said he tried to hype himself up, telling Paris he wanted the ball and wanted to take the last shot.

His layup didn’t go in, but for the Gamecocks to operate at their peak, Jackson needs to play with that level of confidence — the kind that had him erupting in the second half.

“I take full blame for how the team played in the first half because I wasn’t out there the majority of the time because my my body language and how I looked on the bench and how I was trotting down the court, keeping my head down and stuff,” Jackson said.

“And when I saw that first shot go in (in the second half), I was like ‘Oh, I’m back.’ ”

Next four USC MBB games

  • Dec. 11: vs. Presbyterian, 6 p.m. (SEC Network Plus)

  • Dec. 14: at UAB, 7 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

  • Dec. 17: vs. East Carolina (Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville), 2 p.m.

  • Dec. 22: vs. Western Kentucky, 7 p.m. (SEC Network)