NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Feb. 25 issue of CAROLINA.
J.P. Tokoto started out as a soccer player, but after dunking for the first time—in sixth grade—he stuck to the hardwood where he's used his absurd athletic ability to pump out one highlight reel play after another.
Ben Brown: Hubert Davis said on the radio a few weeks ago that you've been working extremely hard on your jump shot. When you're practicing your shot, what mechanical aspects are you focusing on?
Tokoto: "The main thing is just keeping my elbow in. Coach Davis always calls it the chicken wing, and keeping my elbow in has really changed my shot a whole lot. Just holding my follow through more and using my legs are things that I also really focus on when I'm working on my jump shot."
BB: Coach Williams has always said that you could be one of the best defenders he's ever coached here. When you're on the floor and are guarding the opponents best perimeter player, what is going through your head?
JPT: "What I always focus on is their hips. Most players who I've ever played against, when they're driving left or right their hips are usually facing that direction. There's guys in the NBA like Kyrie Irving, and me being a defensive player, I like to watch the guy trying to guard him, and he can crossover on a dime and the ball is going one way but his hips are going the other, which makes it really difficult, and I've never played against guys like that. I also really focus on moving my feet. There's a new rule this year where you can't have your arm on the guy trying to dictate where he's going, and I've gotten in foul trouble a couple of times this year based on that."
BB: Talking about the rule changes, was that hard for you to figure out how to play without keeping your hand on the dribbler?
JPT: "Early on it definitely was hard. In practice, Coach C.B. McGrath would get us used to it by calling fouls and giving us that constant reminder, which has helped tremendously this season. So adjusting to it was difficult, but I think everybody on the team has done a great job getting used to the new rules."
BB: When Coach Williams is getting on the team for something, who can always keep it loose and take away the stress?
JPT: "It's definitely C.B. Actually it's a tie between C.B. and Coach Davis. You know, Coach Davis always keeps a smile on his face no matter what, even when he's mad he'll have a smile on his face a couple of seconds later. And C.B. just always keeps it going with his jokes or with his sarcasm. He can always sense when somebody is getting down because Coach Williams is getting on them and he's always there to cheer us up. So those are the two guys who are always able to keep everybody on the ground."
BB: Whenever the walk-ons get in the game and score, the bench goes crazy. Why do you guys have so much enthusiasm when they score?
JPT: "Whenever we're in practice and we'll be practicing against the Blue Show (the walk-ons), we'll have a couple of good plays against them and get a couple of stops, and out of nowhere, C.B. will call a play because they run the offense of the team we're about to face. And lo and behold here comes Wade Moody off a screen, hand in the face, probably two hands in the face, and he'll jack it from three and it goes in, same thing with James Manor. When you bring that up, it brings back bad memories (laughing).
But it's great to see them get on the floor because they're out here every day with us, but they don't get the same notoriety that we do. So when James Manor or Wade Moody or Denzel Robinson gets in and they score, it's awesome for us because we see them in practice every day so we know they can do it. But to be able to go out on the court and be in the same shoes that we are every day and be in front of the fans and score and the fans go crazy for them as well, so it's awesome.
It's like they're our sons. It's like I'm the dad and James Manor is my son, and it's like seeing him grow up that kind of thing. It's just awesome because they go through the same stuff and they're working just as hard as we are, maybe even harder, and they don't get to play as much, but when they do play and they score, it's awesome."
BB: One of the first things people think about you when they hear your name is your jumping ability. When you were growing up was that something that you worked on or did it just come naturally to you?
JPT: "It's just a God-given gift. The first time I dunked was actually at the end of sixth grade, and I had just previously started playing basketball. Like I had played with friends and stuff, but competitively that was my first time playing, and I think that's where most of my athleticism comes from is just staying constantly involved in sports."
BB: What's your vertical?
JPT: "Senior year of high school I measured it and it was 44 ½ inches. That was the last time I measured it, so I feel like with fresh legs it might be higher now."
BB: Highest thing you've ever jumped over?
JPT: "People think that Joel is the tallest person I've ever jumped over, but I actually had a 7-foot-2 teammate in high school my senior year that I cleared.
BB: During layup lines before a game, what is your favorite dunk?
JPT: "I like the windmill just because it's so easy for me to do, but I do different windmills to switch it up. Like sometimes I'll catch it, bounce it then windmill it. I like the double-pump reverse also. So that's a 180 and then you pump it and then dunk it. It's just whatever I'm feeling at the moment."
BB: When you're on a fast break, at what point do you decide what type of dunk you're going to do?
JPT: "It's literally a last second decision. For instance the Miami game, when James Michael and I were on the break and I caught the ball and I knew I was going to dunk it, but I didn't know how I was going to dunk it until I gathered myself. I started to go up with two hands, and I saw the guy jump early, so I switched it to my left hand and went past him. I think if I had tried to dunk it with two hands I would've gotten some body contact. I think I still could've finished the play but I felt like the left hand was needed on that dunk."
BB: In the off-season when former players come back to Chapel Hill to play, who was your favorite player to learn from?
JPT: "Definitely Shammond Williams. My dad and Shammond were really good friends, so naturally when I came here I worked with him a lot. But my favorite player to play with or against though is either Jawad Williams or Marvin Williams. Just because of their size and versatility, they always keep me guessing. They can both shoot, they're big so they can post up, and they can drive to the rim. It gets me better as a defender because I'm not just guarding a shooter, I'm not just guarding a driver, I'm guarding somebody who is multifaceted.
BB: What's the toughest environment that you've had to play in so far in your career?
JPT: "I'm not going with Cameron Indoor because I only played four minutes there last year, but it was an experience. I'd have to say this year, because I've been playing big minutes, was at Syracuse. That's my favorite place we've played this year even though it was the toughest. I just loved playing in a football stadium; that was really exciting for me. And just the way the court was set up, it was loud and it was just a great environment to play. I wish we had played a little better and come out with a win, but I'd have to say that was the most fun and the toughest place to play."
BB: When you wake up every morning, what are you most excited about when you come to the Smith Center?
JPT: "Just getting out on the court and playing basketball with this group of guys. I love these guys and they're the best group of guys I've played with throughout high school and even last year. I really believe we can do big things and we already have done big things. Just moving forward in ACC play, tournament play, and NCAA Tournament play, I think we're going to do big things this year just because of the personalities we have this year and the leaders we have this year.
Last year leadership was tough to come by with Marcus being a freshman and James Michael being up and down with his play and many other things going on last year were kind of distracting. This year guys have accepted their roles and we've got a ton of leaders. James Michael has stepped up and played tremendously, so has Marcus as well as other guys on the team. But I feel like this is the best team I've played on ever."
BB: I heard this story about you getting attacked by a squirrel. How did that whole thing go down?
JPT: "Man, I can't forget about that story! I was walking by myself to class, this was in the summer, and my thing during the summer was I would go grab a doughnut or two and something to drink and then head to class. So I finished my doughnuts and I put my drink in my bag and I'm going to the trash can to throw away my trash.
Now, people had told me that squirrels on campus were kind of crazy and that they would walk up to people and grab their trash or their food and then just run off. But I was like, 'No way man. I'm from the midwest, pigeons and squirrels are afraid of people.' So I'm walking to the trash can and I have my headphones in and I'm not really listening to anything, and then all in know is I felt a squirrel jump on my arm and then jump off of it.
And I freaked out, man. I'm not going to lie, I freaked out. I jumped back and I screamed like "AHHHH" and my headphones fell off, I'm not sure who looked because I wasn't looking around, I just kept walking. It was a rough day for me after that. I told the boys about it and they were making fun of me, it was rough. That was my first encounter with a squirrel, ever. Now I think it's the funniest thing ever, but I was so funked out that day and people probably think I'm a punk. It was bad, man, but I'm glad someone saw it so people know I'm not crazy."