It’s hard to argue that junior point guard Joel Berry hasn’t been Carolina most important (if not always its best) player this season. More than any other Heel, the team’s fortunes seem to rise and fall with Berry’s level of performance. Unlike Justin Jackson, who’s been a consistent scoring threat all season long, Berry has been prone to some peaks and valleys.
Let’s break Berry’s season down into four even segments: 1.) the first half of the non-conference season (Tulane through Wisconsin); 2.) the second half of the non-conference season (Indiana through Monmouth—Berry missed 2.5 games during this stretch); 3.) the first half (to date) of the ACC season (Georgia Tech through Syracuse); and 4.) the second half (to date) of the ACC season (Boston College through Duke). The following table summarizes Berry’s stats in some key categories for those chronological buckets. As I’ll describe below, each season segment’s statistical profile has described a different type of point guard.
Non-Conference Games 1-7—Joel Berry: All-American
Through the first seven games of the season, Berry’s gaudy numbers were threatening to place him in the pantheon of great Carolina point guards. While the average competition wasn’t as stout in this stretch, he did dominate two (Pomeroy) top-20 teams in Maui (Oklahoma State and Wisconsin), plus a top-75 Chattanooga squad. Not only was Berry scoring 25.0 points / 4o minutes, he was doing so with a True Shooting% of 72.1. Even the ultra-efficient Ty Lawson of ’09 could “only” boast a TS% of 65.9 that season. Per 40 minutes, Berry also averaged 6.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists during the season’s first seven games. Perhaps most importantly, he was fueling Carolina’s (at that point) elite defense with his ball pressure and proclivity for wreaking havoc/forcing turnovers. His Stop% (a defensive charting summary statistic) was at a season-high 69.3 to start the campaign. He was at his most aggressive and attacking in this segment—the only one in which he shot fewer than half his attempts behind the arc, and the one in which he recorded his highest (by far) rate of free throws.
Non-Conference Games 8-14—Joel Berry: Pass-First Point Guard
During the last half of the pre-conference slate, Berry became more of a traditional pass-first point guard. He shot less frequently (15.5 weighted shots / 40 vs. 17.3 in the previous segment), and also much less efficiently. Both his 2-point and 3-point percentages plummeted and, in conjunction with his lower usage, led to a drastic reduction in his per-40 scoring. However, Berry’s per-40 assist rate rose significantly over this period of games. In fact, his 8.4 assists / 40 was nearly on par with Lawson’s ’09 season mark of 8.78. Berry also recorded a (nearly) Lawsonian assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.00 during this timeframe. His individual defense remained very strong, as he posted a terrific Stop% of 65.0 to close out the non-conference schedule. Overall, Berry’s out-of-conference Stop% was a team-high 66.9. His proportion of 3-pointers began to climb, corresponding with a drop in free throw rate.
ACC Games 1-6—Joel Berry: Shoot-First Lead Guard
As the ACC campaign began, a different Berry emerged. The good news is that his scoring efficiency rose closer to his All-American form to start the season. Both his 2-point and 3-point percentages spiked, resulting in a TS% of 64.3. Likewise, Berry’s shooting volume again rose—this time to a season-high 18.1 weighted shots / 40 (a weighted shot is FGA + (0.475 * FTA)). Scoring 23.2 points / 40 (including 26 against Florida State and a season-high 31 against Clemson) at that level of efficiency is no small feat. The bad news, however, is that Berry’s play-making plummeted during this segment of the season. Relative to the previous segment, his assists / 40 dropped by over half to 3.7. Likewise, his rate of turnovers / 40 climbed to a season-high 3.9, dropping his A:TO to an unacceptable 0.95. Additionally, his stellar defense from earlier in the season began to rapidly decline once league play began. During this six-game span, Berry’s Stop% fell to 52.1.
ACC Games 7-12—Joel Berry: Slumping Star
Over his most recent stretch, Berry’s numbers have slumped in many key categories. Similar to the second half of the non-conference season, the latter part of the ACC campaign has been marred by poor Berry shooting. In particular, his 2-point percentage has dropped precipitously to 25.9% (7-27). His free throw percentage, declining across all segments, bottomed out below 70% (capped off by the two huge misses against Duke). Overall, his TS% has dropped below 50% (48.0%), despite a solid 38.5% on 3-pointers. Like his previous poor-shooting segment (non-conference games 8-14), Berry’s inefficiency was associated with a lower usage rate (a season-low 15.2 weighted shots / 40—running contrary to the expected usage-efficiency trade-off for scorers). Unlike that previous segment, however, the lower rate of shot attempts has not been linked to a rise in assists. Berry’s assists / 40 mark has inched up only slightly to 4.1—still far below his non-conference number of 7.1. In better news, his turnover rate has also fallen (from 3.9 / 40 to 2.2 / 40). While his A:TO is an improved 1.82, it’s still far below his non-conference (2.48), 2016 (2.44), and 2015 (2.19) numbers. As Berry’s inability to finish at the rim has emerged as an issue, he’s been compensating by taking more and more of his shots from behind the arc (a season-high 59% this segment). He’ll need to re-establish himself as a dangerous 3-level scorer to regain his scoring form/efficiency from earlier in the year. While not a huge concern for a point guard, Berry’s rebounding numbers have also been consistently declining segment-over-segment. Over the past six games, his rebounds / 40 number has bottomed out at 2.6 (down nearly 60% from his early-season peak). What is a huge concern is his still-declining Stop%. It fell even more to 48.1% this segment and, in all ACC games, has dropped to 50.1% (from 66.9% in non-conference).
The Rest of the Way
For the Heels to hold on to their lead in the ACC standings and, more importantly, have the postseason success that everyone hopes for, Berry will need to snap out of his recent funk. While he doesn’t need to revert to the All-American from games 1-7 who was doing everything (scoring volume, scoring efficiency, rebounding, passing, defending) at an elite level, he’ll need to at least do a couple of things at a high level. Given Carolina’s relative paucity of perimeter weapons, scoring volume will probably be an area in which Berry must excel. And, for the Heels to reach their potential, his defense will need to return closer to its non-conference level. With Theo Pinson’s return, play-making is probably one area in which Berry—never a natural distributor—can take a backseat. He will need to maintain his lower turnover rate, though. Basically, UNC will need the scoring version of Berry from the early ACC games (segment 3) mixed with more defensive energy and better decision-making/ball protection. That sounds like a lot to ask for, but Berry’s shown in the past to be capable of all that and more. His 2016 postseason run and 2017 start to the season were both sustained runs of excellence. And, if that All-American/Maui version of Berry wants to re-emerge, he can cement his legacy among great Tar Heel point guards by leading UNC to postseason glory.