After four years in the world of professional basketball, Tar Heel basketball icon Joel Berry has decided to call it a career as a basketball player, according to an interview with George at the Ceiling Is The Roof podcast. “It has been on my mind for a while, I’ve decided to step away and pursue other opportunities outside of basketball. Huge decision, but so happy with it. I feel great! I know I’ll miss it, but I’m ready for what’s next,” he said.
Berry, as an undersized lead guard without the requisite athleticism or handles for his size, found it difficult to stick in the NBA, bouncing around the Lakers’ and Hornets’ G-League affiliates for most of his professional career in the United States. He didn’t get much time to adjust to playing against professionals before being injured in his first season with the South Bay Lakers, and averaged 11 points per game on 39/29/80 shooting splits, a far cry from the Joel Berry UNC fans had grown to love in Chapel Hill. In his next season, with the Greensboro Swarm, he shot a little better, averaging 8 points per game on 43/33/70 averages. He did explode once for 44 points on 17/29 (8/15 from three), showing his ability, but didn’t quite put things together before the season was interrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last season, Berry decided to try his luck internationally and signed with Beşiktaş Icrypex of the Turkish Basketball Super League. He had a respectable season, playing the 4th-most minutes on the team and scoring the 4th-most points with 10.1 per game on 47/37/86 splits, much closer to his scoring acumen college. Incidentally, Berry was sharing the floor with 2021 NBA first-round draft pick Alperen Sengun, who he’s praised quite a bit in the lead-up and fallout from the draft.
Berry’s Tar Heel career needs no lead-up from me, but it deserves one nonetheless. Berry came to Chapel Hill as part of the vaunted 2014 class that included him, Theo Pinson, and Justin Jackson. Of the three, Berry probably made the least impact as a freshman, as Jackson started instantly and Pinson’s glue-guy traits and infectious personality immediately stamped their identities on the team while Berry played backup minutes to Marcus Paige and took some time to find comfort with Roy Williams’ system. He’s been outspoken about the fact that his freshman season made him want to quit playing basketball at times, and finished the season scoring just 4.2 points per game. He was already showing signs of being the marksman he would become, though, shooting 35% from behind the line and 76% from the free throw line.
He exploded onto the scene as a sophomore, starting at point guard and moving a senior Paige off the ball. He gained fans and won games thanks to his continued evolution as a shooter as well as his toughness and willingness to take the ball to the basket regardless of what was in front of him, drawing a lot of fouls and tiring a lot of defenders. He finished the season averaging 12.8 points per game and shooting 49.5% from the field and 38% from distance, as well as 3.8 assists per game and 1.5 steals, on a team that made it all the way to the NCAA Championship game, where he scored 20 points in a heartbreaking loss. After Paige’s graduation, a junior Berry was fully the team’s leader, and basically did more of the same things that had made him a star as a sophomore. He averaged 14.7 points and 3.6 assists per game, shot 48% from the field and 38% from 3 on nearly two extra shots per game, and made a name for himself as a closer thanks to clutch performances in several close wins, up to and including all the way through the NCAA Tournament, where he earned Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors as the Heels won a championship.
As a senior, expectations were high for Berry. He’d already been the leader of the team, but now he was also going to be expected to take on the primary scoring load and be the team’s best player (his sophomore year it was Brice Johnson, his junior year it was Jackson, who left for the NBA). Somewhat predictably, while his scoring load increased just as a function of opportunity, his efficiency struggled under this increased burden. He scored a career-high 17.1 points per game but lost ground in all his shooting splits thanks to feeling a need to create more offense for himself, hitting 45.1% of his field goal attempts (lowest since his freshman year) and a career-low 34.4% of his three-point attempts on his highest volume yet, nearly 7 attempts per game. He did hit nearly 90% of his free throws, a career-high, and hit 93 three-pointers to pace the Heels’ scoring. The team lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Texas A&M, but Berry finished the season as a third-team All-American according to the NABC. His jersey would be hung in the rafters of the Dean Smith Center thanks to his Final Four MOP honors, and as a champion, his legacy as a Tar Heel was cemented.
It’s unclear what’s next for Berry — he told the Ceiling is The Roof podcast that Tar Heel fans “might see [him] back on TV soon,” and that he’s planning on being more involved with the current UNC program. He’s also expecting a daughter this fall with his wife Kelsey, who he met and proposed to at UNC. Maybe he’ll get into GoHeels broadcasting or something along those lines; he’s got the presence and knowledge for it. Whatever he does, we congratulate him on an excellent career as a basketball player and hope the best for whatever he does in the future.