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Joel Berry has what it takes to be the next great Tar Heel point guard

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Joel Berry is poised to become the leader UNC will need in order to return to the Final Four.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

For most, the sting of the National Championship continues to linger. That is fair. Some fans may need years (decades?) to recover. Understandable. But after about 72 hours of mourning, I dusted myself off, looked at next year's roster, and had an offseason altering epiphany: for the first time since playing Creighton in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, UNC will have a true point guard at the helm of a Roy Williams offense.

This in no way denigrates the ball security of Stillman White, the ambidextrous improvements of Nate Britt, or the heroics of Marcus Paige over the last four years. However, none of them were the classic Roy Williams PG who could push the pace, distribute the ball, and explode into the paint with an extra burst of speed and get to the foul line. In fact, one of the common talking points over the past few years has been the inability to gain a significant advantage over opponents at the foul line.

Enter Joel Berry. From a basic (unadvanced) statistical comparison, his sophomore campaign was very similar to the sophomore campaigns of the great Roy Williams-era triumvirate of Felton, Lawson, and Marshall. See the two charts below, with stats courtesy of espn.com. One shows game statistics, and the other displays total season statistics.

Player

MPG

PPG

RPG

APG

SPG

TOPG

FG%

FT%

3P%

Felton

34.6

11.5

4

7.1

2.1

3.4

.420

.810

.313

Lawson

25.3

12.7

2.7

5.2

1.6

2.2

.515

.835

.361

Marshall

33.0

8.1

2.6

9.8

1.2

2.8

.467

.696

.354

Berry

30.7

12.8

3.4

3.8

1.5

1.6

.446

.867

.382

Player

Minutes

FGM-A

FTM-FTA

3PM-3PA

PTS

REB

AST

TO

STL

Felton

1039

113-269

85-105

35-112

346

119

213

102

63

Lawson

810

140-272

96-115

30-83

406

87

165

70

51

Marshall

1188

105-225

55-79

28-79

293

94

351

101

43

Berry

1228

177-397

91-105

68-178

513

134

151

62

58


There are some understood differences; Felton's 2004 team only played 30 games and Lawson battled injuries while splitting time with Quentin Thomas. Nevertheless, those differences would not have made a large impact on most of the categories. Compared to Lawson and Marshall on a per game basis, Joel Berry scored more, shot more efficiently from the foul line and behind the arc, was a better rebounder, and turned the ball over less. 

The largest gap in these stats is obviously the number of assists and it is fair to question if Joel is as pure of a passer and distributer as the others were. However, the other three men rarely shared time on the court with another lead-guard, as Berry did with Paige. Paige's departure leaves 3.8 assists per game on the court and I am willing to bet Berry can pick up that slack.  

Additionally, the last four years have seen UNC's previous relentless attacking style take a backseat to more of a finesse game. That is perfectly fine and worked phenomenally last year. Yet, it has been a departure from previous Roy Williams teams, that while still being traditionally post-player centric, just haven't seemed as aggressive as previous renditions. Despite feeding the post at historic levels, there was not a noticeable advantage at the line. It is safe to assume that Berry's free throw attempts will see a significant jump this season now as the unquestioned point guard, with occasional relief provided by Nate Britt. For example, Lawson attempted 215 free throws during his Junior/ACC POY/National Championship campaign.

Berry's play after that painful loss to Duke at home piqued my interest into his potential. I remember thinking during that rough stretch against Notre Dame, Louisville, and Duke that the 2015-16 team had all the pieces of previous great UNC teams except a traditional UNC point guard. At times, they seemed frustrated, lacking poise, and looking for someone to guide them when games got tight. Most losses had been close and on the road but something just was not clicking. None of that is new information. 

Unlike some people around the internet, I never thought the sky was falling. The team just needed to find that extra gear. One solution I had long advocated with family and friends was to move Marcus predominantly off the ball and let Berry be the primary point guard. That, in theory, would have given structure to a team that could appear unorganized. Such as in that Duke game, when nobody had any idea what was going on, and Berry forced a contested 15-footer.

I cannot say for sure if that is explicitly what happened, but after the loss to Duke, it appeared that Berry was much more visible and Marcus began to break out of his slump. (Maybe that is personal revisionist history.) In that Duke loss, he had eight points, one rebound, and zero assists. Yet, after that game, there may not have been a more consistent player, with the exception of Brice Johnson. Perhaps one of Berry's greatest accomplishments last year was his consistency through 40 games considering he never found a rhythm during his injury plagued freshman season - another oft-forgotten factor in his development.

After that Duke game and subsequent loss at Virginia, analysts across the country had their own ideas on how to "fix" UNC. Perhaps, not surprisingly, Dan Dakich, Jay Williams, and Seth Greenberg were the most vocal. However, despite Greenberg's incessant, cringe-worthy plea to give the ball to Marcus, Ol' Roy did what the NCAA Committee always did: ignored the former Virginia Tech coach's politicking.

Instead, Berry's play got progressively better, even if the box score did not explicitly show it. The team displayed the toughness we all knew they had, critics be damned. His face contorted into a snarl-smile combination that we last saw on Ray Felton. Visions of a young Ty Lawson danced in our head with every coast-to-coast, stutter-step, hesitation drive to the rim. Yet, he provided a stability reminiscent of Kendall Marshall in 2011 when Larry Drew realized his days were numbered.

Others, deservedly, received more attention and accolades, but Berry slowly, cautiously, and sneakily became the First Mate to Marcus's unquestioned captaincy. Over the rest of the season, he averaged 14.2-5-3 per game. Not overwhelming numbers, but amazingly consistent, with the occasional outburst. Berry's play gave UNC that third dimension that had been missing and forced opposing defenses to stretch the floor. That was vital as the competition became tougher throughout the ACC and NCAA tournaments.

The only time he scored in single digits after that Duke loss was the Final Four contest against Syracuse. Not that it mattered. He had 10 assists. The entire tournament he averaged 13.6-7-5, all above his season averages, including 20 points against Villanova, most of those in the first half. In fact, Villanova's second half run took place, in large part, because of their ability to contain Berry's playmaking.

Admittedly, this year's team will have a different makeup, and there will be plenty of season previews in the coming months. Roy's knees and health will drive conspiracy theories. Questions about Kennedy Meeks' ability to stay healthy or Isaiah Hicks' new role as a starter will become normal. Curiosity about what, if any, major impact the incoming recruits will have, will dominate message boards.

Justin Jackson's flirtation with the NBA will give way to inquiries about whether he can finally be the consistent inside-outside threat that UNC fans have been dying to see. Analysts will ask if Theo Pinson's versatility will provide the capability to play small ball- a stylistic and tactical choice that is uncharacteristic for UNC. Unfortunately, Joel Berry will likely take a back seat to all of these pre-season stories, just like he took a back seat to other narratives the past two seasons. That would be a mistake.

This young man was a top-20 recruit. He led his team to three state titles in high school.  He "knows how to win", which, contrary to some skeptics, will always be a vital trait. UNC's system fits his skill set, and the cupboard is not bare. His stats, despite the obstacles, measure up to previous UNC greats. Few UNC athletes in the last 35 years know the pain this team experienced and Berry will use that pain to fuel his junior year. He wants to be the vocal, actionable, emotional leader of UNC's drive back to the Final Four. He knows this can be, and should be, HIS team. Before his career is over, Joel Berry may just be the next great UNC point guard.