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UNC basketball: Dissecting Joel Berry’s early withdrawal from the NBA Draft

The point guard will return for his senior year, but the news comes much sooner than many expected.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Gonzaga vs North Carolina Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody expected to know Joel Berry II’s future this early. After he declared that his name was in the NBA Draft without anything attaching him to it, we all expected that he’d work out with some NBA teams, wait to see if he would get invited to the NBA Combine, and overall receive some feedback on where his standing was with NBA teams and what he’d need to do, if anything, to impress them further.

Even if he did, there were a lot of signs that Berry might be leaving UNC. A story surfaced and resurfaced all season about a checklist he had kept in his wallet since arriving to UNC and was slowly checking off. “Be a big-time player for my team,” check. “Win an ACC Regular Season,” check. “Win an ACC Tournament,” check. And finally, the last item on the list, “Win a national championship,” was checked off on April 3rd, 2017. He added the Final Four Most Outstanding Player honor to his season, ensuring that his name would go up in the North Carolina rafters and in the history books. It looked like he’d accomplished everything he had set out to do in college. When he declared for the draft, even though it wasn’t binding, it had a sense of finality to it. Going out on top certainly had a nice ring to it.

So why, then, decide to come back early? People are no doubt trying to come up with answers. Here are a few of my theories:

1. Exactly the reasons he gave in his press statement

I mean, obviously, the first instinct should be to trust Berry’s own words:

“After speaking to my family I have decided to withdraw from the 2017 Draft and will return to Carolina next season,” says Berry. “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. There’s no reason to rush leaving school. I love being a Tar Heel...

“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.”

Obviously, this is a totally legitimate reason to return to Carolina, but it’s also very processed. The statement lists all of the expected reasons a player on the fringe of the NBA Draft would return, and that in and of itself isn’t surprising. What this statement doesn’t do is explain why Berry didn’t wait to receive some NBA feedback before making this decision.

2. His ankles might not be healing like he thought they would

In my opinion, this is probably the simplest answer to that question. After Berry had announced that he would enter the NBA Draft, his father informed the public that he expected Berry’s ankles, which had been gimpy throughout the tournament, to be 100% by the time he was to work out for NBA teams. This would have allowed Berry to show teams something they hadn’t seen in the tournament, the ability of a fully healthy Joel Berry. I think it’s very possible that Berry either suffered a setback or just realized his ankle wasn’t healing like he had thought it was, and so wasn’t going to be able to show what he wanted to show. With that in mind, it would’ve made the decision for him to return to school and hopefully show the nation what he can do fully healthy.

3. Berry may have realized what he’d be missing out on

Beyond the basketball side of things, UNC is a pretty great school to be at. Many of us, I’m sure, have experienced the sudden fear and sadness that comes with knowing you’re going to have to leave, whether the place was UNC or somewhere else you were having the time of your life. It’s entirely possible that after announcing that he would be testing the waters of the professional world, Berry came to the realization that he should milk his college years for everything they’re worth. He comes back to no pressure, having accomplished everything he set out to do, and he can focus on enjoying his senior year, getting his degree, and not having to live up to any expectations.

Whatever the reason, I think we can rest assured that that the decision was not hasty, having waited until the deadline to hear the initial report of Berry’s declaration. As fans, this is all we can hope for for our players who have declared.