At the beginning of the season, the staff here at THB made some predictions. One of the few things we all agreed on was that at the end of the season, we would be able to say that Joel Berry II would be the most valuable player on the team. Suffice to say this season has been a bit of a surprise.
Luke Maye’s meteoric rise from role player to offensive star has been well documented. Cameron Johnson shook off an early injury to make an impact, and his insertion into the starting lineup is the axis the Heels’ season is turning on. And although the box score doesn’t always reflect his impact, Theo Pinson holds this team together like glue. And, of course, Joel Berry II is the unquestioned leader of this team (and the reigning Final Four MOP).
There are four games left in the regular season, so it’s a bit premature to declare any one of those four the MVP outright. What we can do is see how their cases stack up against one another. Each of these players would be deserving of that title, but the reasons vary wildly. Let’s take a closer look at each player.
It’s been the story of the season. In last year’s regular season, Maye broke double -digits in scoring three times, and rebounding only once. Granted, he was playing 14 minutes a game that year and not 32 like this year, but the 2017 NCAA Tournament awakened the beast within. Now he routinely drops stat lines like 33/17 and 32/18. He leads the team in minutes per game, points per game, three-point percentage, rebounds, and blocks. And as he goes, so too do the Heels. He shoots 56% in wins and 39% in losses.
It’s honestly his title to lose. Another game where he breaks the 30/15 threshold might just do it, and we already know from the Kentucky game that he won’t shy away from a game winner. The best part of it all is that he’s only a junior.
Joel Berry II
Remember when we were all worried about Berry’s hand injury at the beginning of the season? Whatever happened in that game of 2K is long in the past now—there’s been no real drop-off from last season to this season. That said, he’s shouldering so much more of the offensive load now than he was last year. His volume has increased, and his accuracy has decreased from every part of the court except the free -throw line. But he’s moving the ball around as good as ever: his 9.7% turnover percentage is tied with Maye for second best on the team and second only to Cameron Johnson’s 8.5%.
Berry’s best performance of the season so far, 27 points on 63% shooting, unfortunately came in a loss. It was the Clemson game, which as of this writing is UNC’s most recent loss. If he can turn in that kind of a performance and manage to will the team to victory in one of these last few games, he might prove us all right.
Johnson is the best newcomer of the year, no doubt. He was an unknown quantity at first, and there were some worries whether the injury that caused him to miss the start of the season would affect his acclimation to the team. Well, there’s nothing to worry about. He’s starting now and averaging 30 minutes a game in conference play. And conference play, he’s second or third in just about every advanced metric, behind Maye and sometimes Sterling Manley (who is ridiculously efficient in his limited minutes). UNC has been a different team entirely since Cam got healthy.
The argument for Cam isn’t necessarily his production, it’s how he changed the team overall. Remember when they gave Andre Igoudala the Finals MVP because his insertion into the starting lineup swung that series? That’s the argument here, and it’s gotten stronger with every game he’s played.
The phrase we often here with regards to Theo is that the box score doesn’t tell the whole story. So yes, he’s last in scoring among all starters with 9 points per game. But sometimes the box score can at least give us some helpful context. UNC’s leader in assists? It’s Pinson, with 4.5 per game. (He’s also second on the team in rebounding.) And he’s largely broken his three-pointer habit, having taken multiple heaves from deep only once in the Heels’ last 13 games. He occasionally flirts with triple-doubles, and as a senior is one of the team’s leaders alongside Berry.
The argument for Pinson is rooted largely in intangibles. UNC teams are often so much more than the sum of their parts, and Pinson plays a large part in how that works. If he does get one of those elusive triple-doubles, well, it might be hard not to give it to him.