There were no words of wisdom, no words of advice that Marcus Paige imparted on Joel Berry last spring, at the end of a North Carolina season that fell one shot short of going into overtime in the national championship game. For Berry, though, there was opportunity, and an example.
“Last year Marcus was one of the key guys on our team,” Berry, the Tar Heels’ junior guard, said on Tuesday, after the Tar Heels’ 93-67 victory against Long Beach State. “But he’s gone now so someone else has to step up into that spot, and I think I’m capable of doing that.”
Through UNC’s three games Berry has proven it. He finished Tuesday night with 23 points, six rebounds and four assists, and that was just days after he scored 18 points in a victory against Chattanooga, on Sunday, and 23 in a season-opening victory last Friday against Tulane.
This isn’t necessarily new for Berry, the ACC tournament MVP last season, and a member of the All-Final Four team. He scored 20 points in that national championship game loss against Villanova. UNC coach Roy Williams is quick to point out that Berry, in Williams words, “had a heck of a year last year.”
“I mean, he was a big-time player,” Williams said. “He was the MVP of the ACC tournament, so that gave him a great deal of confidence, and then what he did is over the course of the summer, he continued to work, put in the time shooting the basketball.”
It’s different for Berry now, though. A year ago he was a sophomore on a team led by Paige and Brice Johnson, two seniors who commanded the respect of their teammates, two players who set the Tar Heels’ direction, and attitude.
Now that player, as much as anybody, is Berry, who did a bit of everything on Tuesday, and did it well. That Berry is playing well isn’t a surprise, necessarily. But it’s the way he has progressed, all the while emerging into a void in leadership and production that Paige once filled.
“I think the biggest change is his confidence,” Nate Britt, the senior guard, said of Berry. “We always knew how good he was, we knew how well he shot the ball, how good he was at getting to the basket and drawing contact. And I think right now he’s just confident.
“He’s almost at the point where he feels like he can’t do anything wrong on the court.”
Last year Marcus was one of the key guys on our team. But he’s gone now so someone else has to step up into that spot, and I think I’m capable of doing that.
The season is in its infancy – three games against teams that couldn’t compete with UNC’s talent, or depth – but Berry, to Britt’s point, hasn’t done much wrong. He entered Tuesday night with two turnovers, and added to that total by two with his performance against the 49ers.
Berry scored 23 points for the second time in three games, and has scored at least 18 points in three consecutive games -- a first for him at UNC. He continued to make a a high percentage of his shots (seven of 10 against Long Beach), in part because he has been proficient from behind the 3-point line and in part because of his success penetrating the lane.
He did both in a span of seconds in the first half at the Smith Center on Tuesday. He ended one of UNC’s possessions with a 3-pointer. Seconds later, he rebounded a Long Beach miss and then finished with a layup on the other end. That was part of a first half onslaught that left the Tar Heels with a 50-27 halftime lead.
Berry, though, is still evolving. He’s not the vocal leader that Paige was, neither in practices nor in games. Last year Paige was the commander of the team’s group text message thread, the leader who did everything from gather players for pick-up games to encourage his teammates in their academics.
“Marcus used to check to make sure we were doing great in the classroom, getting the right grades,” Meeks said. “He used to do all that stuff. We don’t really have a guy like that.”
The Tar Heels (3-0), though, have Berry, who has done just about everything else through UNC’s first three games. When halftime ended, for instance, one of UNC’s first plays of the second half ended with Isaiah Hicks completing an alley-oop that inspired a roar from the Smith Center crowd.
Berry was on the other side, the one who threw the pass from just beyond the mid-court line. He was the point guard last season, in a technical sense, but now his responsibilities have increased. Paige didn’t leave him any words of wisdom, Berry said, but he left him an example of how it’s done.
“I just thank him for all the time he spent with me,” Berry said. “ Telling me where to be, telling me what coach wants in different situations and just being a player in general. He’s helped me out so much, and I think that regardless, I was a good player but making that transition to college, he helped me a lot with that.”
With Paige gone, Berry is the unquestioned leader of UNC’s back court. Three games into a new season, he is thriving amid the transition.