Joel Berry II inherits a different degree of responsibility as he enters the second half of his career, and there are occasional reminders of just what is expected out of the North Carolina point guard.
The junior already took an on-floor leap last season. Yet as impressive as it was, Berry knows more is needed in other areas after the graduation of four-year starter Marcus Paige.
“Sometimes in practice we’ll have times where people aren’t focused, and last year Marcus was there to get things going and now I look around and I don’t have Marcus around to do that anymore,” Berry said Wednesday at the ACC’s basketball media day.
Paige was a capable defender and led the Tar Heels in 3-pointers as a senior. There was also little doubt as his career wrapped up that his intangible contributions would be difficult to replace.
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Many of Paige’s duties fall to Berry, who averaged a team-best 3.78 assists as a sophomore and more than tripled his scoring average from 4.2 points to 12.8 points. North Carolina relied heavily on Berry, but he had a veteran mainstay with him in the backcourt outside of a few weeks Paige missed due to injury.
While the Tar Heels have another experienced guard in Nate Britt, it is Berry who will be the centerpiece in the backcourt for a team returning six of the top eight scorers from the group that reached the NCAA title game.
“I think it’s different for Joel because he doesn’t have Marcus,” coach Roy Williams said. “He’s going to be asked to do more leadership things. Last year, he followed Marcus’ lead.”
It should help that Berry started the first six games without Paige last year as the former Tar Heel recovered from a hand injury. Berry averaged 11.5 points in that stretch, a jump for a player who reached double figures only once as a freshman.
“Last year Joel had to really step up because Marcus was out that short time,” forward Isaiah Hicks said. “That really helped Joel really get that experience early. Now, it’s just the fact Marcus is not coming back. I would say Joel, he’s really ready for that. He’s been the most outstanding player in the (ACC) tournament. It’s not extra pressure on him. He’s just ready to play.”
Indeed, Berry was a different player by the end of last season. He averaged 17 points and shot 70.8 percent from the floor in three ACC tournament games, and later was named to the all-Final Four team. North Carolina hopes he can approach that level of play as a junior.
Berry realizes there’s a greater onus on him after Paige’s departure. While he’s not the oldest player on the roster, he is someone the Tar Heels will look to for many things.
Even if some of it doesn’t come naturally, he’s eager to try to provide it and help North Carolina once again reach the final day of the season.
“It’s a challenge for me, but it’s something I’m willing to take on,” Berry said. “To be able to get to where I want to be as a point guard, I have to not only play the game but I have to be a vocal leader as well. I’m a person that leads by example, and so that’s what I would rather do. I want to take on the challenge of being a vocal leader just to see if I can actually be a vocal person.”