Joel Berry will hit Chapel Hill in a little over two weeks as he makes the transition from high school star (two-time state champion and three-time Gatorade Player of the Year in Florida) to college student-athlete. He’s stayed in contact with Carolina assistant C.B. McGrath and is prepared to take the next step in his basketball career.
“He just told me straight up that it’s going to be something different,” Berry said of his conversations with McGrath. “You’re going to go through hard times, but I’ve gone through adversity. I’m ready for what’s to come, because I’m never scared of a challenge. [Coach McGrath] said with me being the way I am, I shouldn’t have a hard time. I’ll still go through some hard times, but that’s all a part of it.”
The adversity didn’t wait for Berry to reach Chapel Hill; he’s rehabbing a bone bruise in his ankle that his limited his ability to work out on his feet. Berry is able to exercise his upper body and participate in low-impact exercises such as on the elliptical and in the pool. “I can’t run, so I have to do something else to be able to keep my stamina up,” he said.
At 6’0, 185 pounds, Berry is a strong point guard with the ability to draw defenders and then find open teammates or take the ball inside himself. He’s got the physical tools to out-muscle and opponent and to play bigger than his height. “He’s undoubtedly the strongest guard in the state of Florida, that I’ve seen,” said Jason Vallery, Berry’s coach at Lake Highland Prep. “Just at the high school level, he dominates in terms of size of guards, and whenever they send two, sometimes three people at him, he’s weaving through and using his physical ability and physical strength to keep people off and find teammates.”
The Highlanders employed a dribble-drive offense with Berry engaging two defenders and setting up teammates. “Often times, opposing teams would choose one or the other. They would either stay out on our shooters and let Joel get to the hole and get to the line, or they would collapse on Joel, and he would find our spot-up shooters for threes, so it’s kind of ‘pick your poison’ with him.”
In talking to Berry, it’s clear that a) he can’t wait to get on his feet and b) he’s ready to make an impact in a Carolina uniform. He and his family made it a point to watch the Tar Heels play basketball as much as possible over the last year, and Berry saw some areas that he could contribute. “Marcus (Paige) was really the only pure shooter out there this year, so I think I can come in and be that other shooter at the point position,” he said.
On the other end of the floor, Berry can enhance the perimeter defense that the Tar Heels sometimes struggled with in 2013-14. “That’s where I try to start my game, on defense, and so with my toughness I think that will help the team a lot too,” he said. “Anybody can score the ball, but no one wants to be different and lock someone down and stop them from scoring, so I take a lot of pride in defense.”
Vallery said he saw Berry’s leadership skills –a must at the point guard position– improve dramatically over the course of his high school career. Always the first to touch the line in sprints, Berry preferred Berry preferred to lead by example. As he matured, he developed the vocal leadership required of a floor general, lifting up his teammates in huddles, getting information out quickly and inspiring the play that led to a second straight state title for the Highlanders. “It was our third year in a row that we went to the state championship, and this year’s crew probably would have been beaten by the other two crews,” Vallery said. “[Joel] was able to lift up the talent level that was here this third time around and bring home the title again, so that was really impressive.”
At Carolina, Berry joins a roster of players that were all the best players on their high school teams. Through his AAU and high school showcase experiences, he’s played with high-level talent and continued to find ways to lead. In Chapel Hill, he’s looking forward to finding his fit. “In high school, you have to do everything, and you’re always beating your body up,” he said, “So (at Carolina) I’ll get a chance to actually be able to pass the ball off and come off some screens and be able to create there, instead of just always creating on the ball.”
In looking at Tar Heel point guards over the last ten years, Berry compares himself to Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton in quickness, toughness and scoring ability. “I think my game is just like theirs, where they’re able to push the ball and being a scoring point guard and also bring that toughness that the team needs,” he said. And while certainly fans and coaches hope Berry will continue to draw those comparisons, he himself knows he has a lot to learn about college basketball. “Once I get there, I’ll be able to start asking Marcus and Nate (Britt) about what the coaches expect as a point guard and just being a player. I’m looking forward to going in there and learning everything I can.”
Berry’s high school coach, for one, can’t wait to see what he can do for the Tar Heels. “He’s going to allow Paige to be off the ball some more and not have as much attention with the ball in his hands, and, I think he’s going to be able to feed those young post players that are starting to develop,” Vallery said. “I think he’s going to be a great addition.”