Success at the college level does not always translate to the NBA. We have seen the story before. Athletes dominate throughout their time collegiately but arrive at the NBA, falling dramatically short of their aspirations. We have seen this with Scottie Reynolds, Marcus Paige, Wayne Simien, and Hasheem Thabeet, just to name a few. The necessary steps that need to be taken in order to make the leap to the NBA are colossal.
If you asked any basketball fan to describe their most recent memories of Joel Berry II to you, they would likely recall moments from his time at UNC. He won a National Championship in 2017 along with being the Final Four’s most outstanding player. Many would also mention his All-American and First-team All-ACC honors as a senior.
“A lot of people know me from what I did at Carolina and the national championships I won and saying, ‘he was good,’ or, ‘he used to be good,’ Berry II told The Painted Lines on Thursday. “I’m just trying to change the narrative on that. I’ve gone through some difficult times, being injured last year – midway through the season. A lot of people forgot about me.”
Joel Berry II is willfully determined to not fall under similar circumstances of the aforementioned players. He wants to send a message to the basketball world. He isn’t done yet. What he did in his four years at North Carolina was not a fluke or a one-time occurrence. He’s entirely confident that he can and will compete at the NBA level.
Berry II’s injury-plagued rookie season
Joel Berry II signed with the Los Angeles Lakers for training camp in 2018. Following camp, he signed a contract with their G-League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers. In 21 appearances for South Bay, he played 22.4 minutes per contest averaging 11.1 points, 2.5 assists, and 1.3 rebounds per game.
Unfortunately, midway through his rookie season, Berry II had season-ending surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Additionally, he fractured his tibia – both injuries through which he initially played. The injuries, specifically his knee, had lengthy recovery periods, resulting in Joel being unable to properly prepare for the 2019-20 season.
In late September, he was traded to the Greensboro Swarm in exchange for a second-round pick in the G-League draft.
Berry II was back in a familiar state that will forever show him love and adoration, but rehabbing from injury was the only thing on his mind.
“I didn’t get a chance to train this past summer,” Berry II told The Painted Lines. “I was getting up and doing the same rehabbing on my knee every single day, and I did that for five to six months. It was tough because I didn’t have any real basketball training time before training camp this year.”
Joel knows what it takes to compete at the professional level. Unfortunately, it’s seemingly impossible to polish and improve your game when your primary focus is rehabilitating an injury. That puts a damper on your development timeline which can weigh on you mentally, especially as a young player where development is essential. You come into the NBA with lofty expectations for yourself, but you’re unable to put those plans into action if you can’t train entirely healthy.
“Mentally, I had to get over my injuries and get back to trusting myself,” Berry II said. “Being out for so long and then thinking, ‘Man is it gonna happen again?’ So I just had to get over that mental part of it and learn to trust myself again. Knowing my knee and body is gonna hold up. As they say, 90% of it is mental, and that’s true. Once you get over the mental side of it, you’ll be good and that’s what I’m going through… I continue to get into the weight room and get my body stronger to prevent those injuries from happening again.”
Having competed at the highest level collegiately, Joel had to throw sky-high expectations aside and get his game back to where it was prior to his injury. It’s a tough pill to swallow. You want to see a drastic improvement in your game over a year into your professional career, but injuries become drastic, uncontrollable bumps in the road.
Getting back on his feet
Joel Berry II is now looking past his injury-plagued rookie season. He’s healthy and now thoroughly determined to resurrect his game and return it to back to its peak.
“I’m working my way back to get to my old self as a basketball player,” Berry told TPL. “This is just a year for me to get back on my feet to try to grow as a player and a person. Now I’m just getting on the court and taking advantage of the minutes I’m given. Just constantly learning and improving.”
Joel is in the best possible situation to recapture his confidence and get revert his game back to the heights that made him a national champion and All-American. He says he feels almost back to 100 percent, but the love and support he’s received from the fans in North Carolina help the matter evermore so.
“It’s a blessing to be able to have that support in Carolina in the midst of trying to reinvent myself for the people that don’t know me as a good professional basketball player,” Berry II explained.
After games, you typically catch Berry II swarmed by over a dozen UNC fans asking for pictures, autographs, or to just say hey. Joel continuously takes his time to genuinely show those fans his appreciation for their support. He’s arguably the fan-favorite at The Fieldhouse in Greensboro, getting an uproar of cheers whenever he checks in or makes a bucket.
“The love just shows the platform I made for myself at UNC… It’s a blessing for the fans to be able to come out and support us. And it’s not only for me, but it also brings a lot to the organization.”
Taking advantage of the opportunity
Joel is in the midst of reinventing his game, making the required changes in order to become the pro he strives to eventually become. His game is not where he would like it to be, but he’s taking it step-by-step, benefitting from every opportunity thrown his way.
On the season, Berry II is averaging just 12 minutes per game – down from 21 per game his rookie season. His playing time is not so much an indicator that he isn’t worthy of more time on the floor. But like anyone, he’s just getting adapted back into the speed and flow of the professional game after being sidelined for over six months.
“I feel like I deserve more playing time, but I’ve always been a team-first guy. I can’t control what the coaches do, but I can only control what I do with the minutes given and to be as productive as I can. Everyone wants more minutes, but this is all about controlling what you can control.”
Joel is not even four months removed from resuming basketball activities full-time. It takes time to recover from an extended period without basketball activities. Game after game, he’s showing steady improvement, making up for the lost time.
“Everyone’s always looking for the next step to make it, but we just have to be blessed and take advantage of this opportunity we have in front of us and do the right thing.”
Many guys in Berry II’s situation, especially at the G-League level, would go into games and just look to “get theirs.” They’d check into the game, guns-a-blazin’, looking to get their shots up to showcase their scoring ability. That’s not the way Berry II is wired. He plays the game the right way. That won’t ever change.
“You always have to play how you would normally play, regardless of the circumstances,” Berry II told The Painted Lines. Some guys at the G-League level don’t necessarily play the game the right way. They take it as “a joke sometimes because they just want to be on the NBA level,” as Joel explained. Some players just look to “get theirs,” despite its detriment to the team. That’s not a knock on the G-League, there are similar incidents in the NBA. In some cases, you find players that unfortunately fall under those conditions. Not Berry II. He’s going to make it the NBA playing the right way.
Even if he plays just six minutes in a game, for example, when Joel checks in he’s looking to find shots for his teammates and properly man the offense. That’s what makes a winning basketball player and what coaches look for in the NBA.
Joel Berry with two nice assists pic.twitter.com/ZWWFcEIlc7— Jack Duffy (@JackDuffyTPL) January 31, 2020
“I just want to continue to play the right way, so when I do get to the NBA level, it’s not something I have to turn on. That’s always been who I am. I always get my teammates involved and run the offense. I just play the right way.”
Adaptability is key
Joel is used to a structured system at North Carolina under Roy Williams, but the G-League is a different game, just as it is in the NBA. There’s less structure in the G. Coaches try to strike the balance of developing their players while simultaneously trying to win every game. The structure can be lost trying to appease both sides.
“I’m used to the structure and a structured system, but it’s all about being adaptable and modifying to the game in front of you,” Berry said. Joel thrives under a structured system as he did at UNC, but being adaptable is mandatory if you want any chance to make it to the big leagues.
“The more playing time I get, the more and more comfortable I get. So my game is changing and changing into the new NBA style. Which is what you have to do.”
Joel’s tailoring his skills to the professional game
The modern NBA is suited to match specific skill sets in order to be successful. Some guys find the NBA game more appealing to their strengths than college. The reason why some successful players at the collegiate level struggle to transfer their talent to the NBA is due to the lack of adaptability.
Joel Berry II has the jump shot, vision, and quickness that properly translates to the NBA. He also benefits from the extra space to operate on offense. But his game is not yet NBA-ready. He’s fully conscious and aware of what aspects of his game he needs to polish if he hopes to compete in the NBA – something he’s certain he will do.
The speed of the game in the NBA is vastly different than that in college. Joel is a fast guy that can get around a large chunk of guards. But changing the speed in which he operates at different levels is something he’s improving on quite a bit, as he explained Thursday.
In college, you can get away with playing at one speed, but not at the next level. You’ve got to be able to change things up. There’s a certain pace you have to play at in the full-court, within the half-court, and pick-and-rolls, just to name a few. You have to be able to control and use your speed at all levels in the game.
“When you’re in the half-court, you have to slow down and let the play and your reads develop,” Berry II said. “That’s something I’ve worked on quite a bit along with my ball handling which you can always improve.”
Defense: a different monster
The skill-level in the NBA has reached inexplicable heights. James Harden is averaging north of 35 points per game for the second consecutive season. Players are dropping 40 points and no one seems to flinch – it’s become normalized. Scoring and the skill-level on offense is at an all-time high. That makes the play at the defensive end tirelessly difficult.
“There’s been a huge adjustment on the defensive end because you have so much more to cover,” Berry II told TPL. “Guys have so much space, so there’s a lot more one-on-one. You gotta be able to stop the ball. I’ve been trying to improve on defending one-on-one so my teammates don’t have to come over and help.”
Berry II is not gifted with a 6-foot-10 wingspan or the athleticism of Ja Morant. The attention required to improve as a defender for Joel is immense and vitally necessary. He explained that if you want to stay on the court at any level, you have to be able to defend, especially without help.
With a positive mindset, Joel Berry II is ready to continue on this upward trajectory
Joel has consistently earned more playing time as the season has progressed. With the way he is playing now, that trend will continue throughout the rest of the season. Joel hopes to conclude the season healthy in order to finally have a full offseason where he can train without restrictions. Inching closer to his dream of signing an NBA contract.
“Everything’s good now. I’m just trying to finish out the season injury-free, and at the end know that I’ve grown as a player and more importantly as a person… It’s helping to get back on the court, healthy, and taking advantage of the minutes I’m given. But most importantly finally being healthy. Getting to a summer where I can train as hard I want to without limitations and play in summer league come July.”
Don’t forget about Joel Berry II. He’s just getting started.