Point guard is a demanding position. Running the offense, leading the defense, acting as a liasion to the referees, handling the rock every single trip up the court, and being responsible for keeping the rest of the team rowing in the same direction can be stressful. If your team relies on your scoring prowess to remain competitive, that adds another wrinkle to a position that has overwhelemed the most well-intentioned of players. Even for seniors with a 13-2 record in the NCAA Tournament.
Much is being made of Joel Berry II’s current workload. For the season, he’s averaging 32 minutes a game. In ACC play that number has reached 34.8 (and rising). His overall scoring and rebounding numbers are up from previous seasons. His shooting percentages, steals, assists and overall efficiency is down. An increased physical toll was expected. This shouldn’t be surprising considering the amount of talent that was lost in the offseason.
To be honest, the fact 5 of UNC’s 7 losses have been within 2 possessions is a testament to his ability and willingness to not let this team fold. He has often been the heart and soul of the Heels. A warrior and ultimate competitor. This season, he has also had to learn how to truly lead.
One could argue that compared to previous years Berry’s total minutes aren’t abnormal. In ACC play from 2014-2016 Marcus Paige averaged 35.8, 33.9, and 32.9. Kendall Marshall reached 35.1 minutes in conference play in 2012. Besides, these are strong, strapping adults. Their bodies can take the punishment, right?
However, Berry is a completely different kind of player. Marshall was a pass first PG, surrounded by six future NBA players. Paige was a silky smooth surgeon with a finely sharpened scapel who didn’t take the same physical punishment that Berry endures. Berry is more of a jackhammer who enjoys/seeks/absorbs blunt force trauma. He specifically sculpted his body to prepare for this kind of season.
It should also be noted that as Paige’s minutes decreased, UNC’s post-season success increased. A second round loss in 2014 followed by a Sweet 16 loss in 2015 and a National Championship appearance in 2016 is an interesting trend. The other PG on those 2015 and 2016 teams to help ease that burden? Joel Berry.
Former UNC Back-Ups
It is obvious this team is missing one key component of every successful Roy Williams team - a backup point guard.
It’s not a sexy moniker. They are oft forgotten. There are reasons they are the backup. Youth. Inexperience. Maybe they’re not quite as talented. Perhaps a certain system isn’t a good fit for their skills. The ones who are truly good enough to be a starter tend to transfer. (Despite whatever hostile feelings one has about his actions, Larry Drew is an example of this).
Consider the following names: Melvin Scott. Bobby Frasor. Dexter Strickland. Nate Britt.
Three of those players won a national title. Another, Dexter Strickland (who now goes by the name Baden Jaxen), would have arguably added to that number had he not torn his ACL midway through the 2011-2012 season. All of them served as key backup point guards at some point during their tenure, most notably on title teams.
For the most recent example, understand that UNC doesn’t beat Oregon last year without Nate Britt’s efforts. In an alternate universe, the Heels defeat Kansas in the 2012 Elite Eight. Frasor essentially became the band-aid for Ty Lawson’s toe in 2009. Whatever their talents were, they all proved to be essential to the success of their teams.
The list doesn’t end with those four. Quentin Thomas, Wes Miller, and Stilman White all contributed vital minutes during their careers. Who can forget Henrik Rhodl in ‘93? Even Ed Cota and Shammond Williams complemented each other in their two years together, averaging more than a combined 11 assists per game from 96-98.
To be certain, a backup PG does not guarantee success. Some of those players were on teams that struggled. Others went to the Final Four. But, on a team that has such glaring flaws as this 2017-2018 one does, it is a critically understated and underrated missing piece to the puzzle.
Pleading the Seventh
I’ve stated many times that Joel Berry was going to need help this season. I meant that he could not be expected to be the leading scorer if UNC wanted to make another March run. That is still true. What I (and most fans) did not expect was for him to essentially have zero help from the bench. The general consensus was that Jalek Felton and Seventh Woods would provide enough relief to slide Berry to the 2 for increased scoring, or let him rest completely.
So far, that has not come to fruition. Felton endured common freshman struggles, but in light of his recent suspension he now has more important matters to focus on. Seventh Woods has been sidelined with a stress fracture and has been slowly improving.
Al Hood touched on the importance of Seventh Woods earlier this week. It’s something that our staff here at THB has talked about since Woods went to the sideline. Jones Angell and Adam Lucas have discussed it periodically on their podcast. Other than that, his injury has been largely marginalized. With or without Felton on the bench, it was always a mistake to undersell the impact of Woods’ stress fracture. Before you scoff, let’s revisit Woods’ numbers in his 7 games.
Woods’ Per Game Averages: 10.9 mpg, 2.4 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 1.7 apg, 0.6 spg, 0.7 turnovers
Woods’ Per 40 Minute Projections: 8.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 6.3 apg, 2.1 spg, 2.6 turnovers
Those are not spectacular numbers, but they are solid. Actually, they compare very favorably to Nate Britt last season. Check it out.
Britt’s Per Game Averages: 19 mpg, 4.5 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.0 spg, 0.9 turnovers
Britt’s Per 40 Minute Averages: 9.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 5.0 apg, 2.2 spg, 1.9 turnovers.
Do you a want back up PG with a 2.5:1 assist to turnover ratio to help ease Berry’s burden through the grind of an ACC season? A back up with a completely diferent skillset that would force opponents to slightly alter their gameplan when he was on the court, even if it was just for a few possessions? Whose speed, quickness, and fresh legs could be utilized on the currently woeful perimeter defense? All while allowing Berry to slide over to the 2 (and give KWill a rest), or taking a full breather for himself?
That answer to all those questions is a resounding yes. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow. As these numbers suggest, that’s exactly what they had last year.
It’s completely fair to ask if his talents would be worth a 2 to 5 point swing against Wofford (3 point loss) and UNC-R (4 point loss in OT)? Or at Clemson (4 point loss) and Florida State (1 point loss)?
I am not suggesting that Seventh Woods (or any backup PG) would make this team a title contender. Nor am I saying that the Heels would have won any of those above mentioned games. However, based on the events that have transpired, it is obvious that NOT having a confirmed second option has limited this team’s options. Thus, their performance has been affected.
Whether or not they receive any help in the coming weeks will be determined by UNC’s medical staff and Roy Williams. If that help comes in the form of Seventh Woods, the Heels will potentially be a different team as the ACC season reaches its climax.
If Woods remains sidelined, I suggest you start tipping your local bartender a little extra. The next couple of months will be hell on all Tar Heel fans’ nerves.