By Adam Lucas
It’s well documented that current Tar Heels receive a huge advantage in the summer when they participate in pickup games against a host of Carolina basketball alumni. Usually, they’re gaining on-court wisdom—how to defend a certain screen or how to develop an offensive counter move to a favorite play.
Sometimes, though, it’s a little more subtle. Such was the case this summer when the returning Tar Heels faced a group of Tar Heel alums in one of the camp games during Roy Williams’ annual summer camp.
Often, those battles are last-basket-wins affairs. But with a handful of members of the current team unavailable for a variety of reasons, this one was not as close. Midway through the second half, Raymond Felton pulled aside Joel Berry II.
“We didn’t have some of our players and some guys were giving up and stopping playing,” Berry said. “Raymond came over to me and said, ‘This is the time to be a leader. I know it’s the summertime, but you have to lead at all times. Be competitive no matter what.’ Those words will stick with me throughout the rest of my career here. He’s a guy who has helped me out a lot in my years here.”
That type of help was part of a breakout sophomore campaign for Berry, who was just the sixth Tar Heel ever to earn ACC Tournament MVP and All-Final Four recognition. His year also contained another link to Felton—the Latta native is the only Tar Heel to ever average more points, rebounds, assists and steals per game over the course of a season (Felton did it in 2003 and 2005).
So after a year like that, what’s left to improve? In anticipation of playing even heavier minutes—Berry played at least 34 minutes in four of the six NCAA Tournament games—he went back to the weight room. “Last summer, I spent a lot of time shooting,” Berry said. “I did that this summer also, but I wanted to focus on getting my body right and being prepared to play a lot of minutes so I can take that wear and tear on my body.”
Berry paid extra attention to his legs, trying to increase his combination of power and speed with exercises that included doing typical squats…but adding resistance bands. “Usually, leg work doesn’t challenge me,” Berry said. “That one definitely challenged me.”
It wasn’t all weight work. After making 38.2 percent from the three-point line last season, Berry says he wants to shoot at least 40 percent from that distance this year. He also worked on reincorporating the one-dribble pullup—a staple of his game in high school—back into his offensive arsenal.
Like Felton, Berry has always had a body that enables him to play through contact, absorbing fouls and still converting at the rim. As he continues to get bigger, he wants to make sure he’s also using that physical style defensively.
He won nine team defensive awards last season, second-most on the squad, and with Roy Williams constantly asking his point guard to be the key to disrupting the opposing offense, thinks he can do even better this year.
“Defense is about being physical, but it’s also about having that mental toughness of not letting the person you’re guarding do what he wants to do,” Berry says. “You have to take him out of his offense and not let him get started so easy. There’s a thought out there about Carolina not being tough enough. I think we showed last year it’s not about who is bigger. It’s about who can stop somebody from scoring, who can push their offense out, who can get the rebounds. We showed last year we can do that.”