RALEIGH, N.C. – When North Carolina and Virginia tipped off the ACC Tournament finals last weekend in Washington, D.C., it was ACC Defensive Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon that drew the assignment of guard Joel Berry.
That singular decision by Tony Bennett highlights the offensive strides that Berry has made in his second season at UNC and his first as its starting point guard.
The Apopka, Fla. product leads the Tar Heels in assists (122), 3-point field goal percentage (38.0), made 3-pointers (60) and free throw percentage (85.6). His 12.7 points per game rank second on the team, and his scoring has been critical in UNC’s success: The Tar Heels are 28-2 when Berry scores in double figures and 1-4 when he fails to reach that threshold.
He’s been even better scoring the ball of late. Since a 2-of-12 shooting performance in the loss to Duke on Feb. 17, Berry is averaging 14.7 points on 51.1 percent shooting (45-of-88) and four rebounds per game. He’s knocked down 42.2 percent of his attempts from 3-point range (19-of-45) and 92 percent of his free throw attempts (23-of-25) in those nine games.
In the ACC title game victory over the Cavaliers, Berry scored 19 points on 5-of-8 shooting in claiming the MVP award.
“Joel Berry was our most improved player and maybe in some ways our most consistent player all year long,” Roy Williams said in Washington, D.C. last weekend.
Berry attributes his emerging shooting touch to long hours in the offseason and after practice getting up a high volume of shots. That dedication, along with plenty of playing time as a freshman, allowed him to settle in to this role during the preseason.
“This year I think I'm playing with a little bit more confidence than I was last year,” Berry said on Friday. “I worked on my game a lot over the summer. I just think it was like a confidence level and also being comfortable within our system.”
Williams initially intended to start wing Theo Pinson alongside of senior guard Marcus Paige in the backcourt, but when a fractured hand sidelined Paige early in the season, Berry capitalized on the opportunity to lock down a starting spot.
“When I came in this year, I had the mindset of I wanted to start and I just wanted to have a big role on the team,” Berry said. “So once practice started, I just tried to get after it and that’s what helped me out a lot.”
While Berry has emerged as a consistent scoring threat for the Tar Heels, it’s not as though he’s made a significant jump over the course of the season, according to sophomore wing Justin Jackson.
“He’s doing the same things he’s been doing, honestly,” Jackson said. “I think he’s just being a little bit more aggressive now. It’s all the hard work he put in during the offseason and during the season. It’s starting to really show.”
There’s been plenty of talk in recent weeks about the roles of Berry and Paige in the backcourt. Berry is the point guard to Paige’s shooting guard, although some observers maintain a role reversal would better suit the Tar Heels. Williams has consistently and strenuously dismissed that dialogue, although Berry confirmed on Friday that his head coach pulled him aside in practice weeks ago and asked him if he would be willing to play some at the two.
Berry’s response? “Yes, I can.”
However, instead of making a significant adjustment, Williams decided to push the tempo even more to take advantage of having two point guards on the court.
“We just did a better job of transitioning to if Marcus gets the ball, I can run down the court, or if I get the ball, he can run down the court,” Berry said. “So it’s just trying to get the ball out a little faster. All of that other stuff, it doesn’t matter.”
After a 14-point effort in UNC’s NCAA Tournament opening win over Florida Gulf Coast, Berry will likely draw two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year Kris Dunn. He’s growing accustomed to that type of attention.