Felton. Lawson. Paige.
Sometimes, you just feel better when a certain player has the ball. As Carolina fans, we’re used to this. I could go backwards in time with more examples than just those three, and hopefully the list will continue to grow longer in the future. Judging by his breakout performance at the end of last year, and his performance so far this season, Joel Berry II is looking like the newest addition to that list.
Berry’s role role on this team, however, is not all “pass-first” like some other point guards. He’s averaging 4.3 assists so far and less than two turnovers, which is certainly respectable. It’s more his scoring that has given the Tar Heels a lift in the first seven games of the season. He's shooting close to 56% from the field and 47.1% from behind the arc. He was the Maui Invitational MVP with 54 points in three games. So far, when you give it to Joel, good things happen.
It’s not just the points and the assists that make Joel Berry II the most valuable player on this Carolina team, it’s also the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet that make him such an important asset. Whether he just nailed a key three, or the other team is on a 10-0 run, Joel Berry II always looks the same. His composure is outstanding.
That was one of the few criticisms of Brice Johnson, if you remember. Getting too amped up for a big play can be distracting, and getting too down on yourself can be contagious. For Berry, neither scenario affects his poise. A point guard and a leader alike garner attention from those surrounding him. They often follow suit in actions and behavior. Joel Berry does an incredible job maintaining his focus, which is crucial for the Heels. Down the stretch, in the biggest of games, Carolina will look to him for inspiration.
After a 7-0 start, a Maui Invitational title, and a No. 4 ranking, it would probably be tempting to start dreaming big, wouldn't it? (via, ESPN)
It's early, and a long way to go. But, North Carolina is the best, most complete team I've seen. Right now, I'd have the Heels at No. 1.— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) November 23, 2016
Yes the hype is on, and in full effect. I’m not going to sit here and say that these are bad things to say about a team in November, but I will say that it’s important to manage expectations. Here’s what Berry had to say after beating #16 Wisconsin for the championship in Maui:
“We're playing good right now, but I think we can still play better.”
Sure, this might be what you would expect from an experienced player who has handled media questions before. Obviously he's not going to say that this team is amazing, and that they have a deep run in the tournament locked. I also think he'd refrain from saying that, not just because he's supposed to. Joel Berry has perspective that only a guy motivated by a national championship loss can have. He knows the road ahead is tough, and there is plenty room to improve. It’ll be crucial for him to impart this wisdom on the young guys, and shrink everyone’s heads down a little in the games to come.
Aside from scoring, composure, and perspective, sometimes you just have a gut feeling about a player with the ball in his hands. Some effective guards just do not handle the ball well. If you think back to J.P. Tokoto, he's a great example. Tokoto is beyond athletic and served as a great defender and swing guy for Carolina from 2012 to 2015. Roy liked having him on the court for these things and his fantastic ability to dunk the ball. However, sometimes trying to go for the home run assist, he’d turn the ball over at an inopportune time. 85 times actually, during his junior season.
This is not a bash on J.P. Tokoto by any means, as he was one of my favorite players to watch. However, I was admittedly not as comfortable with the ball in his hands as I am when it’s in Joel Berry’s. You can feel it. It’s more than just bringing the ball up the floor and beginning the offense. In the midst of a half court set, where the ball is being passed around the perimeter, Joel Berry makes good decisions. He has great vision, and he puts the ball where it needs to be. Sometimes, that means in the basket.
As the season rolls on, and the stakes rise with the level of competition, Joel Berry II will need to be big for the Tar Heels. This team is poised for a great season, but none of that matters if they don't approach each game the right way, from the top down. That responsibility lies in the hands of Berry, and so will the ball when the game is on the line.