CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — It usually takes only 10 or 15 minutes for Joel Berry II to see what he wants. Every night, he lies on his back, shuts his eyes and measures his breaths. Usually the room is quiet; sometimes ocean sounds fill the background. If he happens to be sharing a hotel room with a teammate on the road, Berry puts on his headphones and opens Pandora and whoever occupies the other bed knows to leave him alone. He thinks about hitting a shot or laughing with his fellow Tar Heels or holding up a trophy. He thinks about all the things he wants to happen but haven’t happened yet. He’s not a particularly religious guy, but he believes that if he can put the good thoughts out there, they’ll come back to him in due time. “If you want to be something,” Berry says, fresh off a practice at the Smith Center, “all you have to do is tell yourself, ‘I can be that,’ and it’ll come true.”
Scoff at the New Age, karmic conjuring all you want: The results are proof positive. An uncluttered, affirmative mind helped Berry become an underrated but invaluable cog in North Carolina’s run to the national title game last spring. Now, despite an ankle injury that idled him for the last two games, the 6-foot, 195-pound junior point guard is one of the more impactful performers in the country, period, as a game against Kentucky looms in the CBS Sports Classic on Saturday. Berry is the Tar Heels’ second-leading scorer (14.8 points per game). He’s the team’s best rotation shooter by true field goal percentage (67.8%) and its second-most valuable performer by Win Shares (1.7, narrowly behind Justin Jackson’s 1.8) despite missing time recently. He’s also, in a secular sense, the spiritual center for the Tar Heels.
By the end of last year, Berry was the ACC tournament MVP, posted a near triple-double in a national semifinal win over Syracuse and scored 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting against Villanova in the epic championship game loss. All of it, in Berry’s estimation, was merely the end result of shedding distractions and negativity after a freshman season that didn’t meet expectations. “Sometimes as human beings we look at things outside of ourselves, and try to blame it on other things,” Berry says, “instead of just looking within ourselves and saying, ‘Maybe I need to change something.’”
Tired of playing against older and bigger sisters who did not care how small their brother was, and bored with ball-boy duties for their games, 6-year-old Joel Berry woke up one morning and made a request. I want to play next week, he told his parents. So Joel Sr. and Kathie outfitted their little boy with elbow and kneepads and placed him in a league with 9-year-olds. Despite the difference in age, all those afternoons in the yard that ended with Joel II crying and wanting to fight his sisters turned out to be the hard part. “Those pads came off the next game,” Joel Sr. says. “A lot of them 9-year-old boys, they couldn’t keep up with him.”
Joel Berry II eventually grew up into a national top-30 recruit, so it’s no massive shock the talent was evident at the start. But he was carried along by feistiness and toil, too, rarely carrying himself like that talent came easily.
His father, Joel Sr., played football at Central Florida and later took up Shotokan karate in order to keep his body and mind stimulated, eventually earning a second-degree black belt. Another benefit of martial arts: He could teach its lessons of discipline and focus to his kids. “That’s why I was always on a straight path,” Joel II says.
Joel Sr. also insisted that his children play multiple sports, believing that skills gleaned from one would help the other. And Joel II did excel as a safety once he began playing football in seventh grade; at one point, he even flirted with the idea of giving up basketball in favor of the gridiron. Joel Sr. rejected that idea without much deliberation, and father knew best. The physicality Joel II developed in football enhanced his hoops game. Taking contact in the lane or battling to get over a screen were facile chores compared to colliding with a ball-carrier in the hole. “When it comes down to having that mental toughness—it’s different,” Joel II says. “Out on the court, if you get mad at someone, you can’t just go hit somebody. In football, if you get mad, someone cheap-shots you or something, you can go in there and kind of hit him and get revenge. It makes you way more aggressive. Because every play in football, you’re hitting somebody.”
Early in high school, though, basketball became Joel II’s lone pursuit. And because he dropped everything else, he promised his father he’d dedicate himself to being great at it. To that end, the Berrys sent their son to Lake Highland Prep in Orlando, Fla., partly because it was a better academic option than local public schools, and partly because it suited Joel Sr.’s desire to put his son into a gym as early as possible every day.
He was the only person free to drive Joel II to school, which began at 7:30 a.m. He also was due at his job by 6:30 a.m. So Joel Sr. and Lake Highland’s strength and conditioning coach simply arranged for a door to open 90 minutes before the first bell, which allowed Joel II to get busy long before his classmates did. “I’m like, this works out great,” Joel Sr. says. “I couldn’t drop him off and leave him at the gate, so he needed something to do in the meantime. So he really didn’t have a choice.”
Joel II stuck to a sleep schedule many high schoolers might snicker at: Lights out around 9:30 p.m., with the 5 a.m. wakeup coming. (Even during AAU trips, Joel II roomed with his father and kept the same pattern.) Workouts began around 6 a.m. every morning at Lake Highland. Some days Joel II fired away on a shooting machine, some days he did skill work, and Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays were lift days with his strength coach.
Joel Sr. cannot recall his son complaining about the plan, and Joel II is even more convinced now of its necessity. “It’s what I had to do,” he says. “I’m not the tallest guy. I’m not the biggest guy, either. Athletic ability can get you so far, but at the end of the day, you’re still going to have to have skill with it. I just wanted to reach my full potential as a basketball player. I love to work hard.”
Because he is a self-described mama’s boy, Joel II watched sports with Kathie all the time. And because Mama liked Sean May, she and Joel II watched North Carolina all the time, all those games with Tyler Hansbrough and Ray Felton and Ty Lawson. It became Joel II’s dream to suit up for the Tar Heels. And it was just after midnight on Aug. 6, 2012, when he sat in his room, with his phone nearby, wondering if Roy Williams would follow through with an earlier promise to be the first one to call that day. The phone chirped promptly. It was Williams. He offered a scholarship. When Joel II finished the conversation, he walked to his mother’s room and delivered the news. Kathie cried. He wouldn’t commit until January 2013, but in truth, that call and that offer ended the recruitment of Joel Berry II.
“I know a lot of players say it’s like a dream come true to be here,” he says now, “but, like, I really do mean it.”
It required a little more persistence, and a little more communing with that spiritual side, to turn the dream into something more real.
Joel Berry II played in 30 games as a true freshman, but he logged just 397 minutes and took just 99 shots, averaging 4.2 points per game. He worked through injuries and illness along the way, but he would later blame that lackluster first season on his own poor habits and diluted focus. Too much time playing video games. Too much time spent on social media, or texting and FaceTiming friends back in Florida. “I felt like I needed to invest more,” Berry says. “I love the game of basketball, and I felt I wasn’t loving it as much. I just wanted to get back to doing that. I did that for four years in high school. When I got here, I kind of got away from it.”
The physical part he could address in a matter of seconds. In the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, Berry lived in Rams Village, a residence hall located less than a minute’s walk from the Smith Center, if you hurry. He woke up in the morning to play pickup and then stayed after to shoot. If he found himself with idle time at night, which happened more often than not, he called a manager and asked if they had time to rebound for him. It was yet another commitment to putting in work at odd hours, as he’d done all those mornings at Lake Highland, and it was effective once again: Berry would end his sophomore season as North result Carolina’s second-leading scorer (12.8 points per game) and its best threat from three (38.2% efficiency from long range). “Joel was a facilitator, a complementary player, but yet down the stretch, he was a very significant scorer for us,” Williams says. “And I think that confidence has carried on to this year.”
His shooting prowess also brought him some minor celebrity. Before a road trip to Virginia at the end of February, Tar Heels coaches suggested that the perimeter players engage in a three-point shooting competition inspired by the Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson. The contest: How many long-range bombs could they make without missing two in a row.
Earlier that season, Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield piled up 142 makes without consecutive misses. North Carolina’s Marcus Paige later followed with 156. Hield then ran off 197. So before a post-practice film session, Berry began to fire away, with a 10-minute limit on the session in mind. Instead, he became a one-man roadblock to film study: Berry hit 251 threes before missing two in a row. “I’m kind of glad I stopped at that number, because I couldn’t go any longer,” he says. “My arm was just dead. It just feels numb. I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I could ever do that again.’”
Surpassing the exploits of Hield, the eventual Naismith Player of the Year, was emblematic of Berry’s leap. By the end of the season, he was as high-level a performer as anyone on a stacked North Carolina roster. “If we would’ve won [the championship],” Jackson says, “he would’ve been Final Four MVP.” Berry just didn’t feel compelled to broadcast that. “I knew I had two guys, in Marcus and Brice [Johnson], that helped this university out a lot,” he says. “They were the ones getting all the spotlight, but they deserved it. Instead of being a horrible teammate and trying to be selfish or anything, I just stayed in my same lane, and I kept on doing what I needed to do. I don’t like being in the spotlight. I’m not that kind of person. Sometimes it comes with what you do.”
The diligence Berry demonstrated in the summer of 2015, to rebuild his work ethic and hone his shot, was complemented by a clearing of his mind. He not only minimized the smartphone distractions but also returned to the serenity of nightly meditation and visualization—habits he had learned during his father’s martial arts lessons. “You train to exhaustion, you go into relaxation and then you go into a deep meditation,” Joel Berry Sr. says. “At that moment, that’s when your connecting with the universe. At that moment, you think about some of the wonderful things you want to manifest in your life. You’re too exhausted for your mind to wander. You just focus in on what you want to see happen.”
Before suffering an ankle injury in the first half against Radford on Dec. 4, it was all happening for Joel Berry II: He’d scored 18 or more points in five of North Carolina’s first eight games, shooting better than 54% from the floor in those five outings, which included consecutive 20-point games as the Tar Heels won the Maui Invitational in convincing fashion. “I think he has been undersold,” Williams says. “I think he’s one of the elite point guards we have in college basketball. He’s the complete package, because he can do it on the defensive end of the floor also.”
There’s a reason Berry’s father texts him one word before every game—Believe—and there’s a reason Berry tattooed that word on his arm. Once he returned to closing his eyes and quieting his thoughts every night, he wound up as a key contributor in a Final Four run, a positive energy generator on the floor and off of it; his amusingly twitchy, muscle-flexing “Strong Man Dance” during locker room celebrations became a small Internet sensation during the NCAA tournament. He tried to picture all of it happening before it happened. Then it more or less did. “I don’t want to take credit for the stuff that happened last year,” Berry II says. “But as I put that out in the world, it kind of came to me. That’s why I’m so big on it.”
North Carolina seems well positioned for another Final Four run come April. Should it manage that, at least one individual on the roster will be able to say, with conviction, that he saw it coming.