We’ll never speak of North Carolina point guard Joel Berry in the same breath as Tar Heel legends like Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, James Worthy, Antawn Jamison or Sean May. Nor should we.At the peak of those guys’ primes, they dominated the sport. Berry isn’t dominant – his numbers are good, but they don’t leap off of the page. He’s a 6-foot point guard with a good but not great outside shot; a guy with enough speed and passing creativity to be effective, but not someone who will make you ooh and aah at the TV screen.
But let’s be clear: Berry has had an awesome college basketball career. And he deserves more credit than he’s given.
It starts with the record. Berry is 108-31 (.778) as a Tar Heel. Berry is on pace to win more games than every UNC player this century besides the class of 2005, headlined by Danny Green and Tyler Hansbrough. Members of the 2016 and 2017 Tar Heels are the only UNC players who have reached two national championship games since 1981 and 1982. Before that, no Tar Heel squad had done it.
Berry was arguably the best player on the 2017 national champs – him and Justin Jackson were 1A and 1B in some order. He was UNC’s second-best player to Brice Johnson in 2016 – keep in mind, Jackson took a huge leap in 2017 and was a complementary piece as a sophomore. Berry was far more efficient than Marcus Paige.
He’s going to go down as the player of the decade in what’s been a remarkable stretch for North Carolina basketball (Jackson is a close second, but Berry stayed for his senior year, and the two were neck-and-neck before that).
Berry was a guest on Andy Katz’s March Madness 365 podcast and was asked about leaving a legacy in Chapel Hill.
“That was one of the reasons I came back,” Berry said. “A lot of people win a championship and go on and start another life at the professional level… and never really get a chance to sit back and think about what you’ve done and accomplished in the past years.
“There’s been times where I’ve taken a step back and thought about when it was hard for me to even find minutes on the court, and now I’m winning the national championship. It’s something that’s special.”
Let’s compare him to some (unofficial) Tar Heels of the decade in past years. Note: Berry is not a better player than any of these guys. We’re just talking about accomplishments through the prism of winning and longevity.
2000s: Tyler Hansbrough
Hansbrough was more statistically dominant, won a national championship and made another Final Four. Hansbrough is clearly a more prominent Tar Heel than Berry.
1990s: Antawn Jamsion
Made two Final Fours, but never a national title game. Better statistically than Berry. But wasn’t the reason for a national title winner.
1980s: Michael Jordan
No need to waste space comparing these two – just know that Jordan won a national championship as a freshman and didn’t reach a Final Four in his remaining two years.
Berry can say something none of those guys can: he was a top-two player on consecutive teams that reached a title game. He’s the first Tar Heel to carry that distinction since… Worthy, who played for UNC back in 1981 and 1982.
Alright, now let’s pump the breaks. If we’re holding a draft of past Tar Heels, Berry probably wouldn’t be taken in the top 20.
His career averages: 12.3 points, 3.1 assists, 1.1 steals on 42 percent shooting and 37 percent from 3. Granted – he only averaged 4.2 points as a freshman, which drags his averages down. But nobody’s going to argue that those numbers belong in the same conversation as Jordan, Hansbrough, May, Worthy, Jamison, etc.
Berry has been a top-20ish player in the country for the last three years – nothing to scoff at, but also not the kind of stuff that would seem to vault him into an all-time great Tar Heels debate.
Fair enough. But if the criteria is “indispensable player on incredible teams,” Berry deserves plenty of praise.
If you had to sum up North Carolina’s recent identity in one word, ‘resiliency’ comes to mind. Berry plays a big role in cultivating that mindset.
“We understand that when we lose, we know how to bounce back,” he said of Carolina’s core group. “We know how to get to our dreams and goals. I think that’s one of the biggest keys – knowing how to bounce back from a loss.”
Considering how rarely losses have happened, he’s not kidding.