The North Carolina Tar Heels will have the pleasure of adding three elite freshmen to the roster in 2014-15. One of those diaper dandies will be point guard Joel Berry, who just earned his second-straight FHSAA title with the Lake Highland Prep Highlanders—and a tournament MVP to boot.
The 6'0", 185-pound floor general put a final stamp on his high school career with 20 points, nine rebounds, one assist and one steal in the 58-53 victory over Ribault. That was with Berry rarely going into attack mode after gaining the lead, as Highlander head coach Jason Vallery slowed the tempo and had Berry playing off the ball for much of the second half.
If anything, it was Berry's semifinal performance against Berkeley Prep that sealed the MVP award for the senior. He was ferocious in the paint, earning trip after trip to the free-throw line. Berry scored 19 of his 39 points from the stripe, missing just five of his 24 free-throw attempts. He also added nine rebounds, four assists and four steals to his stat line.
For the record, Coach Vallery turned down the tempo in the second half of that game, too.
Through five FHSAA tournament games, Berry averaged 22.4 points, five assists, 6.6 rebounds and 2.2 steals. He also played all 32 minutes in each of his last two games.
In watching Berry during the tournament, what stands out the most about ESPN's No. 16 prospect in the 2014 recruiting class is that pit bull mentality of his. He is absolutely fearless when taking it to the bigs in the paint. The way he shields the ball with his strong frame and finishes through contact is reminiscent of former Tar Heel great Ty Lawson.
He may be a soft-spoken, polite young man, but he doesn't hesitate to bulldoze anyone standing between him and the rim. He'll just help the defender up after he puts him on the floor.
That doesn't mean he hasn't taken some nasty spills himself. Twice he was laid out on the hardwood in the championship game. The first earned a collective gasp from the crowd of Highlander faithful, as he dropped from about three feet in the air with his body perfectly parallel to the floor.
But that chilling moment was brief, as Berry popped right back up and walked to the free-throw line as if nothing even happened.
He also proved to me he'll be just as deadly in Roy Williams' transition game. He may not have the word-class, blazing speed of Lawson, but he's pretty quick down the floor and is an excellent finisher in traffic.
But watching Berry at the high school level doesn't do the depth of his game justice. I remember the first time I ever watched him play was in an AAU game against the Texas Titans in 2012. At the time, Julius Randle still had UNC on his list, and my intention was to watch Randle closely to gauge his talent.
I couldn't tell you what he did that day. All I remember was Joel Berry, who hadn't even received an offer from North Carolina yet.
I was absolutely blown away by his basketball IQ, toughness and overall savvy on both ends of the floor—from a kid about to enter his junior year of high school. Berry was already playing like a man.
He fearlessly stepped in front of Randle twice to force charges on the 225-pounder. He wreaked havoc in transition defense and leading fast breaks. And the creativity and footwork he used at times to create shots in the paint were downright uncanny.
Those are some of the things you don't necessarily get to see when he's running the point for LHPS. But, somehow, no matter who he is playing for, the kid is a champion.
Berry doesn't force the issue. He's not worried about his stats or recognition. All he cares about is doing everything necessary to pick up a W, whether it's scoring, differing to teammates or doing the dirty work like drawing charges.
That's why he has two state championships and a Nike Peach Jam title to his name since 2013.
As talented as he is, it won't be easy earning playing time in his first year at Carolina with returners Marcus Paige and Nate Britt in the point guard rotation. Paige has had a phenomenal sophomore campaign and Britt has been a key contributor in many of the Tar Heels' biggest victories this season—especially in the waning minutes.
Couple that with Coach Williams' preference for experience, and one can assume we'll see Berry on the sideline more than the hardwood as a freshman. That isn't a knock on his ability to play at the collegiate level by any means. The potential for Berry, in my mind, is absolutely off the charts.
It's too early to say where he will rank against the best point guards to have donned Carolina blue. But I have a feeling when his career in Chapel Hill is over, he, like many of Roy's other point guards (including Paige), will be remembered as one of the Tar Heels' elites.
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