“Hold your head up.”
“Keep doing what you’re doing and something good will happen.”
Easy advice to take when things are going well, but more difficult to embrace after Berry suffered a groin injury forcing him to miss eight games midway through the season.
Still, the texts, and the Berry family’s belief in their contents, helped him turn what had been an uneven, injury-plagued freshman season into a launching point for a potentially special sophomore campaign.
“The beginning of the season was definitely a learning period for him,” Joel Berry Sr. said. “After being a McDonald’s All-American, Mr. Basketball in Florida and always seeing him play a lot, it was rough at first seeing him go through that period. That’s why we tried to keep it positive and keep his spirits up.”
Not yet a factor in the offense, Berry Sr. told his son to find a niche and excel at it.
“Maybe one or two games before the injury, he was starting to play great defense,” Berry Sr. said. “I told him play good defense and you won’t be on the bench. I honestly think he was putting so much energy into his defense that that’s what hurt the groin.”
Berry averaged 13.2 minutes, 4.2 points and 1.5 assists per game. Like freshman counterpart Justin Jackson, he played his best basketball in March. He scored a career-high 15 points against Georgia Tech near the end of the regular season, and hit two threes in the Tar Heels’ season-ending loss to Wisconsin.
“I can honestly say that by the end of the season, everything we prayed for had happened,” Berry Sr. explained.
Surprisingly, he attributes his son’s end-of-year surge to the groin injury.
“The mental part was the biggest transition for Joel,” said Berry Sr. “He’s been playing against bigger guys his entire life. Learning the college the system and what a point guard does, that was the hardest part. You have to almost be a coach on the court. Before the injury he was just doing a lot of overthinking.”
Sitting on the sideline and watching, Berry Sr. said, gave Berry time to watch the game, let his mind slow down and figure out exactly what he was supposed to be doing.
“Those games gave him a chance to let the water calm a little bit,” said Berry Sr. “It’s hard to go out on the court, play well and be physical if you don’t know what the heck you’re doing. Once he had a chance to really figure out what Coach (Roy) Williams wanted out of him, then he was able to play with his natural instincts and he finished off on a positive note.”
“After games, sometimes I would text (assistant) Coach (C.B.) McGrath and we stayed in contact a lot and he did great keeping my spirits up. He told me and Joel, ‘hey everything is going to be OK.’ He promised it would get better and it did.”
Berry’s relationship with fellow point guards Marcus Paige and Nate Britt was also influential to his improved play the last month of the season.
“They’re like brothers,” Berry Sr. said. “They were wonderful. They helped him with his transition to college. They taught him everything and answered questions when he had them.”
In fact, Berry Sr. said UNC’s depth at point guard was one of the reasons his son signed with the Tar Heels.
“Most of the freshmen that are coming in want to start right away,” he said. “That wasn’t our goal. My goal, and the whole family agreed, was that we wanted him to go to a school where they had some guys that were there that he could learn from. Starting as a freshman is a big responsibility. It helps when you have veterans that can teach you when the coaches aren’t around.”
“By Nate (Britt) and Marcus (Paige) helping him and teaching him, they built a great relationship in regards to sharing time.
There was no jealousy or tension with him and Nate. It was never our goal for him to try and start right away or be one and done. We want him to enjoy the journey.”
Berry is entering the offseason completely healthy and poised for a breakout year. He’ll spend a couple weeks at home before returning to Chapel Hill for summer school.
In his end-of-the year meeting with the UNC coaches they laid out the most important things on which they want him to work.
“It’s basically taking care of his body, staying healthy and working on his shooting,” said Berry Sr. “He’ll probably take more shots next year so we want his percentage to be higher. The other thing is that genetically he’s built to be a big guy, more like a football player. So, he needs to be open to different types of food and that’s going to help him keep his weight down and prevent injuries.”
Increasing his lateral quickness, fluidity and improving his flexibility are also things the UNC staff and strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian asked of Berry.
“He carries a lot of muscle in his legs, so flexibility is important,” Berry Sr. said. “He’s going to have to stretch before his workouts and get a good warm up. Things like Yoga, pool work and even some martial arts will help him.”
For North Carolina to reach its first Elite 8 since 2012 and first Final Four since 2009, Berry will have to be an integral piece of the Tar Heels’ backcourt.
“He’s ready for next year and looking forward to it,” Berry Sr. said. “We want him to just give the coaches what they want. Play good defense and be a general out there.”
“What I’ve told him since he was a little boy is that you have to play selfless basketball and make everyone around you better,” he continued. “It’s not about how many points you score. It’s about how you help the team be successful. He’s learned a lot from the coaches and players this year and I think next year something good is going to happen. I take that back. I don’t think something good is going to happen… I’ll put it this way… I know something good is going to happen.”