North Carolina guard Joel Berry II (2) celebrates in the final seconds of the NCAA Final against Gonzaga in Phoenix on Monday.
The performance that sent Joel Berry’s jersey to the Smith Center rafters could be his last in a North Carolina uniform.
The junior point guard declared for the 2017 NBA Draft on Sunday, 10 days after former teammate Justin Jackson decided to forgo his senior season and enter his own name in June’s draft. He joins teammates Theo Pinson and Tony Bradley as the three Tar Heels to test the waters at the NBA Draft Combine without signing an agent. All three could still decide to return to UNC next season if they withdraw their names by May 24.
After earning second-team All-ACC honors this year, Berry would have entered next season as an early favorite for ACC Player of the Year — an award that Jackson snagged this season after a dedicated offseason. But if he leaves, the 6-foot point guard projects as a late second-rounder, if he gets drafted at all, because he lacks the size of traditional NBA lead guards and hasn’t shown a consistent enough shot to sell himself as a spark off the bench.
In what could be his final game as a Tar Heel, Berry tallied 22 points and six assists against Gonzaga to earn Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four despite playing on two sprained ankles. It was a highlight for the junior after a tumultuous tournament run in which he battled through injuries and inconsistency, shooting a combined 5-for-35 in wins against Texas Southern, Arkansas and Oregon. He also struggled mightily in six of UNC’s seven losses this season, averaging 9.2 points on 27.7 percent shooting in those games.
But North Carolina rode Berry’s biggest performances to season-defining wins — including a Maui Tournament triumph over Wisconsin, a victory against Duke in the regular-season finale and the national title win over Gonzaga.
Berry’s unexpected departure would leave Pinson as the only remaining member of UNC’s prolific 2014 recruiting class — which has guided the team throughout its past two tournament runs — unless Pinson also decides to leave after three seasons. It would also leave rising sophomore Seventh Woods and incoming first-year Jalek Felton as the Tar Heels’ only two options at point guard.
While they possess different skill sets, the similarities between Woods and Felton are striking. Both are 6-foot-2 combo guards from Columbia, S.C., whose superb athleticism vaulted them atop the state’s recruiting ranks as four-star prospects. But each is more comfortable playing at the two than leading an offense, which Berry’s early exit would force them to do.
Woods showed flashes of potential during his first year at UNC, but he struggled adjusting to the point guard position, recording nearly as many turnovers (42) as assists (49) while playing just under eight minutes per game. Felton, the nephew of former NBA point guard and Tar Heel star Raymond Felton, comes to Chapel Hill as the top combo guard in the country and the No. 27 recruit overall. But much like Woods, he needs to improve his perimeter game and build upon his 175-pound frame to fill a role he likely didn’t expect to come his way.
At least, not this soon.