Joel Berry, one of the top point guards in the Class of 2014, was once on a path to play safety on Alabama’s football team.
About two years ago, as a freshman, he was invited to an Alabama football game. As he put it, it didn’t get any better than that. But soon after, Berry lost his love for football and found himself in another situation that “couldn’t get any better.”
Berry devoted himself to his second sport – basketball. He is now national relevant, as a top five point guard in the Class of 2014, and landed a scholarship to play at North Carolina. From there, Berry’s college decision wasn’t too difficult.
“Since I was a little boy, I always watched North Carolina,” Berry said. “I was always a big North Carolina fan and watched them all the time, and I watched Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton and just the point guards. And at that time, I didn’t know that my game could fit it, but once I developed and go toward this age, I kind of saw myself playing at North Carolina because of the previous point guards that they had. It’s a great program. It couldn’t get any better than that – playing for Roy Williams.”
And by all accounts, Berry should fit in perfectly with Williams’ system.
A 6-foot-1, 185-pound point guard, Berry loves to run with the ball and credited football for his “aggressive” style of play.
His coach at Lake Highland Prep in Orlando, Fla., Jeff Turner – a former NBA forward – said his team already plays up-tempo.
“He’ll fit really well into it,” Turner said. “We ask him to score a lot for us, and he can do that. He’s a really good shooter. He’s strong. He can get to the basket. But I think he really enjoys setting his teammates up. He can run. He loves to play up-tempo.”
As a junior this season, Berry averaged 25.3 points a game, recorded 3.9 assists and 6.7 rebounds a game and blocked 1.2 shots a game.
As a sophomore, he scored a career-high 49 points in a game and was named Mr. Basketball in the state of Florida, making him the only sophomore to ever receive the award.
“Once you step on the court, all of those kinds of accolades like that kind of go away, because you’re only as good as your last headline,” Berry said. “Some people give you respect, but you always have to go out there and play with a chip on your shoulder, like someone is always out there better than you.”
He came back his junior year with a better team around him and led his team to a 4A state championship last season. Berry missed eight games during his junior campaign with a torn meniscus, which he believes allowed his teammates to build confidence in his absence.
But Berry’s leadership at the position was pivotal in the end, and Turner said it comes naturally to the rising senior.
“He wants to be the best, and he’s willing to work to be the best, to do all those things,” Turner said. “There are a lot of kids who want to be great, but aren’t willing to put in the time. He has both, so I think that makes him special and kind of separates him from other kids that I’ve seen.”
That drive to be the best was only fueled when Berry visited North Carolina to see the Tar Heels take on Maryland in the Smith Center on Jan. 19.
In a way, the jerseys hanging in the Smith Center rafters challenged Berry.
“It gives you chills to see that and to see that I’m going to North Carolina and being able to be affiliated with the program,” Berry said. “When I went up there and saw the jerseys that were in the rafters, I mean, it just put a really big smile on my face, because I get an opportunity to do what they’ve done at North Carolina.”
Berry said Williams made two trips to see him in Florida and told him he’s not opposed to playing three point guards at once – referring to Berry, Marcus Paige and Nate Britt, who will join UNC next season.
According to Berry, Williams said he played multiple point guards and as many as three at one time in his most successful year at Kansas, likely the 2003 squad which featured both Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Miles prominently.
Either way, Berry was not deterred by following Britt to UNC to potentially already join Paige. He expects to have his opportunity, because he expects to work hard, which is what he’s doing right now.
“I just want to work on developing my floater and also working on pick and rolls and coming off the pick and roll and to be able to either dish it off to the big man or keep on working on my midrange game,” Berry said. “And also (I’m) just working on things that I already do. I just want to improve on them more.”
This summer he will play with Each 1 Teach 1, an AAU team in Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL). Last summer he played in the 2012 FIBA U17 World Championships, where Team USA won a gold medal and finished 8-0, while outscoring opponents by an average of 39.9 points a game.
“That’s probably one of the best things that I’ve done and been a part of, because I was able to go out and not just represent myself, but also represent my country,” Berry said.
He started five of the eight games and averaged 7.9 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game in fewer than 20 minutes a game.
Turner thinks he can make a name for himself in the NBA one day, mostly because he believes in Berry’s work ethic.
But Berry’s excited to make himself known in Chapel Hill before the NBA comes knocking.
“It really depends on how I perform on the court,” he said. “I would love to stay for four years and see if I can break any records or one day see if I can get my jersey put up in the rafters. But if I’m blessed to be able to play for only two years and go off and get paid for what I’m doing and what I love to do, then that’s great.”
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