CHARLOTTE — Joel Berry II has seen his share of big moments as a point guard at North Carolina, making the leap in his sophomore season as one of the go-to guys for the Tar Heels.
But as a junior, his role shifts from follower to leader as the cornerstone of the 2016-17 squad. Exit four-year starter Marcus Paige; enter Berry.
“I think it’s different for Joel because he doesn’t have Marcus,” coach Roy Williams said Wednesday at the ACC’s basketball media day. “He’s going to be asked to do more leadership things. Last year, he followed Marcus’ lead.”
Berry, voted to the preseason all-ACC first team by media members, like Williams, knows things will be different this season.
“I just know that I’ll probably be at the top of all the scouting reports,” Berry said. “I just have to continue to play hard and do what I did last year. When it comes to leadership, I have to be more vocal. I’m the type of guy that I just like to lead by example and not talk much.
“But that’s the one thing that I’m going to have to change this year, just being a little more vocal with not having Marcus this year. That’s the one thing I’ve been working on this summer. “
He might be a stranger to his new leadership role, but he’s had plenty of time in the spotlight to warrant his new position, earning ACC Tournament MVP and NCAA Tournament All-Final Four honors last season.
“Being the confident guy I am, I just go into each and every game playing my hardest,” said Berry, who averaged a team-best 3.78 assists and more than tripled his scoring average from 4.2 points to 12.8 points as a sophomore.
But he won’t be alone. Berry leads a group returning six of its top eight scorers from a squad that swept the ACC titles and reached the NCAA title game. He’ll be joined by veterans in senior guard Nate Britt and junior wings Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson. With Pinson sidelined indefinitely with a broken right foot, sophomore Kenny Williams and freshmen Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods will have a chance to earn some quality minutes.
Berry called the group “underrated.”
“We might not have the most exciting players, whether it’s jumping up and dunking the ball or someone that’s a top pick,” he said, “but in regards to getting the job done and having great players, I think that we do have that in our backcourt.”
After shooting a school-record low 32.7 percent from 3-point range, the Tar Heels made it a point to get better from behind the arc this summer — and Berry has seen the improvements at fall practice.
“A lot of guys spent a lot of time in the gym this summer getting their shot,” Berry said. “Kenny hit one three last year, but in practice, he has been shooting the ball really well. Brandon has come in and shot the ball really well. Justin is doing what Justin does — he’s shooting it great. That’s one thing that we’re going to need this year with having that inside-outside attack.”
As Berry pointed out, the Tar Heels still plan to focus on an inside-outside approach, but Williams said he plans on playing more “small ball” this season. With all-American Brice Johnson gone, the burden to produce in the paint falls on seniors Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, as well as sophomore Luke Maye and highly-touted freshman Tony Bradley.
“This year we only have four post players,” Williams said. “Last year we played a small lineup sometimes because it was either to match the other team or to give us an advantage against the other team. I think we’ll be more prone to do it this year.”
The Tar Heels’ rebounding ability will likely determine how much Williams tinkers with a smaller lineup throughout the season.
“Brice Johnson is not walking in that gym,” he said. “He was the best rebounder in the ACC last year, either in conference games or total games — and had 23 rebounds in one game. So we’ve got to rebound more by team, rebound by committee, because you don’t have that one sensational rebounder.”
Despite the questions entering the season, Berry isn’t worried as much about expectations, but rather progress throughout the year as the team aims to maintain its standing in the ACC and eventually make it to Phoenix for a second straight Final Four appearance.
“We’re returning a lot of people, so there is still some experience there,” Berry said. “But at the end of the day, you’ve just got to focus on yourself, focus on what’s going on with the team, and not worry about the expectations and everything, because everyone has their expectations.
“As long as we’re doing what we’re doing and listening to Coach (Williams) and getting better as a team, that’s all that matters.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached on Twitter @RoddBaxley.