North Carolina

UNC’s Joel Berry makes preseason vision a reality

North Carolina’s Joel Berry II (2) taps in a basket over Florida Gulf Coast’s Julian DeBose (3) during UNC’s 83-67 victory in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, March 17, 2016, at the PNC Arena in Raleigh.
North Carolina’s Joel Berry II (2) taps in a basket over Florida Gulf Coast’s Julian DeBose (3) during UNC’s 83-67 victory in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, March 17, 2016, at the PNC Arena in Raleigh. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Before he experienced his first college game, Joel Berry had already played against Raymond Felton, the former North Carolina point guard. This was before Berry’s freshman season at UNC, and he was going through those famed summer pick-up games with UNC alums.

His first few encounters with Felton, in particular, remained in Berry’s mind. He thought about them last summer, before his sophomore season, and on Friday Berry, the Tar Heels’ sophomore point guard, thought back to the first time he played against Felton.

“He just dogged me,” Berry said. “And I think it kind of gave me a little chip on my shoulder coming in last summer.”

Late in his sophomore season, Berry has emerged to become as significant a player as any for the Tar Heels, who on Saturday play against Providence in the second round of the NCAA tournament. His evolution has been a long time in the making, from his arrival a year and a half ago, to the confidence he built late last season to what he did last week during the ACC tournament.

There, in Washington, D.C., Berry earned the tournament’s MVP honor after he averaged 17 points per game and shot 70 percent from the field. It’s what happened long before, though, that enabled him to reach such a point and experience that kind of success.

And it began, in many ways, last summer – when he earned some redemption against Felton.

“They always went at it,” Theo Pinson, the sophomore forward, said on Saturday. “They’re both similar guards because they’re both stocky, little quick shooters.”

Berry last summer wanted to prove that he belonged on the court during those pick-up games. He wanted to prove that he belonged, period, and that he could play a more prominent role on a team with national championship aspirations.

He managed to fare better against Felton.

“I got to him a little bit,” Berry said with a smile on Friday.

Yet that was just the beginning. A year ago Berry backed up Marcus Paige at point guard.

He approached this season with greater aspirations, and he wasn’t afraid to make them known.

“When I came in this year, I just had the mindset of I wanted to start, and I just wanted to have a bigger role on the team,” Berry said. “So once practice started I just tried to get after it.”

Even before Paige suffered a broken bone in his hand that forced him to miss the first six games of the season, Berry had all but secured a starting spot in the Tar Heels’ backcourt. Paige’s injury, though, made it clear that Berry would begin the season starting at point guard.

When Paige returned in early December the original plan called for him and Berry to both start, but to share time at point guard. Instead, though, Paige debuted at shooting guard and has mostly remained there throughout the season. His time at point guard has been limited.

Both players acknowledge that it could have been a delicate situation – a senior, Paige, having to move from his natural and usual position to accommodate the emergence of a younger player. But it has worked for UNC, which is the top seed in the East Region of the NCAA tournament.

“He’s like my running mate,” Paige said of Berry, “whereas last year he was my backup. So that dynamic has changed and allowed us to be more open and vocal with each other. And I’m no longer the teacher. We’re kind of in this together.”

Berry fits the mold, in some ways, of some of the other scoring point guards that UNC has had during coach Roy Williams’ tenure. Felton was quicker and a stronger finisher and Ty Lawson more of a complete player, but Berry’s recent play suggests his best could be yet to come.

When I came in this year, I just had the mindset of I wanted to start and I just wanted to have a bigger role on the team. So once practice started I just tried to get after it.

Joel Berry

Berry made several important clutch shots for the Tar Heels during their run to the ACC tournament championship. During a victory in the quarterfinals against Pittsburgh, his steal and layup in the final minute before halftime ignited UNC and was remembered as one of the game’s defining plays.

A couple of days later Berry’s late 3-pointer against Virginia helped turn the championship game permanently in the Tar Heels’ favor. Berry had played well before that three-game stretch in Washington, D.C. And yet his performance there, in the ACC tournament, was something new.

“That was important for him,” said Justin Jackson, the sophomore forward who arrived at UNC in the same class as Berry and Pinson. “We knew he could do it. But for him to finally see and prove to himself that he could do it like that, especially against some really good point guards, I think that was the key.”

Berry prides himself on his toughness. Pinson, his roommate, said earlier this season that Berry was the toughest member of the team. Before every game, Pinson said he tells Berry the same thing: “I already know what you’re going to do.”

For Berry, that has often meant taking the important shot in the important moment. Or coming up with the critical defensive play when UNC most needs one.

Berry has earned the team’s defensive player of the game honor, which is decided by the coaching staff, nine times. Nobody else has received it more than seven times.

And yet despite Berry’s development this season, Williams has at times found himself defending his decision to put the offense in Berry’s hands. Some have wondered why Paige isn’t the starting point guard. Or why Berry, UNC’s leading perimeter shooter, isn’t playing more shooting guard.

Berry, after all, is not the most pass-first point guard Williams has ever had. Paige remains the team’s leader in assists. Berry, in fact, didn’t have any assists in UNC’s final two games of the regular season – both victories against Syracuse and Duke.

And yet the dynamic usually works, with Berry on the ball and Paige mostly off of it. Paige knows that some players amid similar circumstances might not have handled the situation as well.

“Yeah,” he said on Friday, sitting in front of his locker. “But I came back to school two different times to be a part of something special. Because it doesn’t mean anything if you can’t win, and our best chance to win is when (Berry is) playing well.

“So if that’s what it takes, I’ll go sit on the bench if I have to do. If you tell me we’re going to win if I play one minute tomorrow, I’ll play one minute tomorrow. I don’t care.”

Berry, though, did care about his role. After serving as a bit player during his freshman season, which was marred by a nagging groin injury, Berry wanted and expected bigger things during his sophomore season.

He entered the start of last summer motivated by that thought, and inspired by how Felton and some of UNC’s other old pros had “dogged” him before his freshman season. Then Berry went to work.

Pinson on Friday remembered what Berry did in the summer. The work in the pick-up games, in the weight room, where Berry is something of a natural given his father was a professional power lifter.

“That’s where we first saw,” Pinson said. “Like, this dude’s really going to do something this year.”

NCAA Tournament in Raleigh

Saturday

No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 9 Butler, 7:10 p.m. TBS

No. 1 UNC vs. No. 9 Providence, 9:50 p.m., TBS

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