Joel Berry II is the best point guard in college basketball right now. There, it’s been said. For all the hype—mostly deserved—around freshmen studs like Markelle Fultz (Washington), Lonzo Ball (UCLA), and Dennis Smith Jr. (NC State), or the continued development of veterans like Monte Morris (Iowa State), Frank Mason (Kansas), and London Perrantes (Virginia), no one has had a start quite like Berry for the Tar Heels.
Through UNC’s 3-0 opening to the season, Berry has been at the head of a varied, explosive offensive attack and one of the better perimeter defenders. His averages are stellar, with 21.3 points per game (nearly double what he averaged last year), 5.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists. All are career highs despite playing in fewer minutes per game due to the blowout nature of the games.
Moreover, his shooting numbers are out of this world and, though there’s little chance he can keep all three up that high for a whole season, it’s clear Berry is a tremendously efficient basketball player. He’s shooting 62.1 percent from the field on just under 10 shots per game while hitting 53.3 percent of his threes (2.7 makes per game) and 90.9 of his shots from the foul line.
The free-throw shooting numbers are what really stand out—yes even amongst blistering three-point shooting statistics. Berry is 20 of 22 from the line, meaning that he gets there over seven times a game now. That’s more than double his attempts from last year and is a great indicator of just how much of a threat he’s become.
Simply, Berry is the man in Chapel Hill. Like many predicted coming into the season, he was the one destined for a Brice Johnson sort of leap into one of the country’s top 10 players. So far, Berry’s done just that, but it’s still more than just eye-popping early-in-the-season numbers.
Watching him on the court leading head coach Roy Williams’ team, it’s easy to see how comfortable and fitting he is for the Heels. He and Marcus Paige combined for a deadly two-guard attack last season, but Williams’ teams typically work best with one point guard manning the show. Think Raymond Felton or Ty Lawson, coincidentally both of whom had their best seasons and won national titles as juniors. Berry, obviously, is a junior.
Berry is similar to both Felton and Lawson, as well, albeit maybe a little stronger than both at this point in his career. He is a physical guard, as evidenced by his numbers getting to the foul line, and he can easily withstand shoulder contact for difficult layups. Whether it’s on the break, on the pick-and-roll, or just driving inside the lane, Berry is a terrific finisher thanks to his size, touch and body control.
Berry stepping into the main role is also positively affecting the rest of the Heels, the best sign for a supreme point guard. As it stands, five different UNC players are averaging over three assists per game (Berry, Justin Jackson, Kenny Williams, Nate Britt and Seventh Woods). The whole team is averaging 23 assists per game, good enough for top 10 in the country. The offense is clicking right now, and with shooting numbers going up for Berry, Jackson, and others, Carolina will be one of the hardest teams to consistently stop.
The defense has been solid this year, too, and Berry’s one of the better perimeter defenders in the ACC. He was top 10 in steals in the ACC last season and is already putting up similar numbers with 1.3 per game. He’s got long arms, can’t be bullied around and, as a three-year guy, understands his place in the structure of the defense.
His biggest strength lies in his ability to turn steals or live-ball turnovers into quick points on the other end. UNC loves to run under coach Williams, and Berry is the perfect kind of point man for that. Anytime he or someone else gets a steal around the top of the key, the Heels are off running. On the break, Berry can finish it himself, get fouled with a trip for easy points, or dish it off to one of his teammates at the right moment. There are few others more exciting to see leading a 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 fastbreak than Berry.
The final thing for Berry to do is keep up this play throughout the season. He’s on a wonderful streak right now, but if he can keep this up every night and in big games throughout the ACC, North Carolina should be yet again a contender for the Final Four.
As we saw last year, it’s crucially important to have experienced guards to make it deep in the tournament. Villanova, Oklahoma, and UNC all had senior point guards leading the way and, as much as one-and-done freshmen have impacted the game, a veteran at the 1 is still something that will elevate any team.
The Tar Heels have just that in Berry. He’s so well-rounded without any real weakness to his game. He can shoot, he can pass, he can rebound, he can play defense, and he can lead one of the best teams in the country. Berry’s playing like the best point guard at the moment, and if he can keep it up, don’t be surprised to see North Carolina go far into March Madness in a few months.