Joel Berry, Justin Jackson, and Theo Pinson set foot on UNC’s campus as three 5-star recruits for the 2014 UNC Basketball season. It weirdly feels like a lifetime ago when we first saw Jackson inserted into the lineup as a starter, with Joel Berry occasionally making his appearance off the bench behind Nate Britt, and Theo getting time off the bench as well. There is a certain unique quality to this specific class, one that I think has a possibility of surprising a lot of people in terms of what’s in store for these three players.
The 2017 North Carolina Tar Heels are now the NCAA National Champions. The journey to get to this point was one that may be the most unique journey that three players could possibly endure together. This recruiting class came in right around the time “the stuff,” as Roy likes to put it, began to blow up all over the sports media. The Weinstein report was out, people were freaking out, calling for banners to come down, postseason bans and the like.
Out of all of this stuff, none of this was even remotely relevant to current UNC players other than the possibility of a postseason ban based on the evidence presented. Regardless, not only did these three players stick with their commitment to the university, they managed to shine in ways that have cemented their names into the history of the school all without thinking twice about it.
Fast forward to 2016, UNC had just came off of a Sweet Sixteen defeat to Wisconsin, and Marcus Paige returned to campus with revenge on his mind. Along that road, the team managed to win the regular season championship and locked down the number one seed in the ACC Tournament. This, to me, was the most defining string of games for Joel Berry II. During the tournament, you could almost see the fire that sparked into his eyes and before you knew it, he was dominating in the entire tournament and managed to get ACC Tournament MVP on their way to winning their 18th ACC Tournament Championship.
Once the NCAA Tournament started, the Heels began their tear through anybody that stood in their way. They dominated, well, everybody. Florida Gulf Coast, Providence, Indiana, Notre Dame, and Syracuse got dismantled in very decisive wins, never winning a game by less than 14 points. Justin Jackson was continuing his NCAA Tournament 3-point spree that he exhibited the previous year, Joel Berry was continuing his great play, and Theo left his mark as well.
Then in the Villanova game, the story tells itself. It was arguably the most heartbreaking defeat that UNC had faced in a long, long time in the NCAA Tournament. Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson’s clock had expired. No chance to redeem themselves, nothing left to do but to move forward and hope each day the loss stung less and less as they prepared for their NBA careers.
Following this crushing defeat, Justin Jackson tested the waters and declared for the NBA draft so that he could participate in the combine. After receiving feedback, he decided to come back to school for what will go down in history as the year of redemption. It was assumed that Theo Pinson was going to return, as his game was still in need of polishing. He provided high energy off the bench, his defense is spectacular, but his ability to score left a lot to be desired.
Then there was Joel Berry. A story surfaced about the piece of paper he kept in his wallet. This piece of paper contained a list of all of the goals that Berry wanted to accomplish in his college career. Whether or not his completion of the list would 100% end his college career remains to be seen, but the one thing left on his list by the time they reached yet another Final Four was to win the national championship. He even got the word “Believe” tattooed on the inside of his arm as a reminder to himself as well as his fellow players, that in order to get back to where they fell short last year they had to believe and work hard every day to get there.
The rest of this story tells itself, and not only is a 7th national championship banner waiting to be hung in the Smith Center (or six if you are that person that doesn’t count 1924), but Justin Jackson’s 1st team All-American season and Joel Berry’s Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four earned them the rights to have their jerseys hung in the rafters as well.
Theo Pinson had one of the most subtly amazing NCAA Tournament runs that he could’ve possibly had. Think about it: Pinson made the huge assist to Luke Maye against Kentucky, had the game-saving tip-out on a missed free throw shot, and then turned around and snatched a tip-out from Meeks right after to seal the deal. He also had a huge impact against Gonzaga as well. Things came full circle for three players who had been through everything and more.
So the big question coming off of what could be a storybook ending: is the story really over? Will Justin Jackson, and perhaps Joel Berry, declare for the draft and sign agents? If you were to ask me on a personal level, my answer to the question would be yes. Justin Jackson will go into the draft and sign an agent, and take advantage of where he is currently predicted to be drafted in the NBA Draft. Joel Berry just may, and should test the waters of the draft, and depending on the feedback he receives he may come back.
If he’s healthy, and he impresses, he just may be good as gone. Finally, due to a series of injuries, Theo Pinson will likely stay to finish his senior year. Before this season started, players said that they expected Theo to surprise a lot of people this year. While he did surprise often, and in very good ways, I still feel like there is more behind what they were saying. I think we will get the version of Theo Pinson in 2018 that fits the bill of what his teammates predicted him to be to his fullest.
However, let’s consider everything these three have been through. Let’s consider that these three are not just teammates: they are brothers. They are a hard trio to picture apart from one another, and with the exception of Luke Maye and Kenny Williams, are the three remaining Tar Heels that have been through the worst heartbreaking loss of their college careers, only to come back and get the kind of redemption that you would only see in movies. Sometimes in sports we discount the fact that these players are humans to their core.
Yes, Joel Berry’s list is completely checked off. Yes, Justin Jackson’s stock runs a risk of falling coming back for one more year. What if, however, Joel expands his list? What if he decides that winning one championship isn’t enough, and he now wants to go from being part of history to being a part of a dynasty? What if Justin Jackson feels that his stock actually can go higher, as he finished the season not playing his best (which is still really good, by the way), and that he can go from a mid/late first round pick to a top five pick?
Or maybe, just maybe, some things have all of a sudden become bigger than money and potential fame. Sometimes the things that we don’t see on the court are the most important motivators of all. Brotherhood is one of the most powerful intangibles that nobody ever speaks of in sports. When you start something together, you want to finish together, even if the word “finish” gets re-defined altogether.
There is a chance, however slight it might be, that “finish” no longer means champions, but “finish” begins to mean a Final Four three-peat. “Finish” means another regular season championship. “Finish” means going for the seldom-seen 2nd National Championship in a row. Or, does “finish” mean walking the stage at graduation together, knowing they left all of their blood, sweat, and tears on the hardwood floor of the Dean Smith Center, their minds and energy in the classrooms, and their hearts and dedication in the community surrounding them. Time will tell, and this all could be said for nothing. One thing is for sure though: it has been a ride like none other.