Joel Berry helped lead North Carolina to the national championship while playing on two sprained ankles, and in the process ensured that his No. 2 jersey would forever hang from the rafters above UNC's home court. And now he's coming back for more.
One day after UNC announced that Berry, the junior point guard, had declared his eligibility for the NBA draft, Berry said he'd changed his mind and that he'd return to school for his senior season. And so that sound that could be heard emanating from Chapel Hill was a collective sigh of relief.
“After speaking to my family I have decided to withdraw from the 2017 draft and will return to Carolina next season,” Berry said in a statement that UNC released late Tuesday afternoon.
The significance of Berry's change of course can not be overstated for the Tar Heels. In the span of about 30 hours, they went from wondering whether their point guard and their emotional leader had played his final college game to having the assurance that, in fact, he was returning.
UNC will now wait for Tony Bradley and Theo Pinson to make their final NBA decisions. Like Berry, Bradley, the 6-foot-10 freshman forward, and Pinson, the 6-foot-6 wing forward, also declared their eligibility for the draft. And like Berry, neither signed with an agent.
That allows them the opportunity to go through the pre-draft process – the NBA Combine, if they're invited, and workouts with individual teams – and receive feedback from NBA personnel about their professional prospects. College underclassmen have until May 24 to withdraw from the draft.
Berry, as it turned out, didn't need so much time. The deadline for college freshmen, sophomores and juniors to declare for the draft was Sunday at 11:59 p.m. Less than 48 hours later, after originally deciding to go through the pre-draft process, Berry decided to return to school.
“I know I can continue to improve my game and be better prepared for the NBA after another year playing against the best college competition in the country,” Berry said. “There’s no reason to rush leaving school. I love being a Tar Heel and love playing for Carolina and coach Williams.”
Berry was named the Final Four Most Outstanding player he led the Tar Heels with 22 points during their 71-65 victory against Gonzaga in the national championship game earlier this month. He also finished that game with six assists.
He played on that Monday night, as he had throughout the final five tournament games, through significant ankle pain. Berry sprained his right ankle during UNC's victory against Texas Southern in the first round of the tournament.
He sprained his left ankle during a victory against Kentucky in the South Regional championship game. During UNC's two Final Four victories – the first of which was against Oregon in a national semifinal – Berry received near-constant treatment and then played through the pain of his injured ankles.
Berry's father, also named Joel, said during a phone interview earlier this week that Berry's ankles had just now finally healed. He said that Berry had planned to go through the pre-draft process, and to receive feedback from NBA personnel, but Berry's plans apparently changed.
“My family and I have enjoyed every part of playing at Carolina,” Berry said. “I am proud of what we have accomplished in my first three seasons as a Tar Heel and am excited about our team next year, the chance to continue to improve in all areas of the game and the opportunity to complete my education and earn my degree.”
A native of Apoka, Fla., Berry averaged 14.7 points and led UNC with 138 assists during his junior season. When he received Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors, he became the first player in school history to earn All-Final Four honors twice.
In his two seasons as UNC's starting point guard, Berry twice helped lead the Tar Heels to the national championship game on the final Monday night of the season. His return significantly increases UNC's chances of making another deep postseason run in 2018.