by Turner Walston
CHAPEL HILL - J.P. Tokoto’s reputation as a high-flyer, a leaper with the ability to make a highlight reel preceded him to Chapel Hill. A few months before he arrived at Carolina, Tokoto’s acrobatics won him the 2012 American Family Insurance Slam Dunk Contest. You can watch those highlights here:
But Tokoto joined a Tar Heel roster with several similarly-sized, more experienced players at his position. Four, in fact. Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald, P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock all made playing time on the wing hard to come by for the freshman. He averaged 2.6 points in about nine minutes per game.
So the next season –with Strickland graduated, Bullock off to the NBA and Hairston and McDonald unavailable– all of a sudden, Tokoto had an opportunity. “Stepping in to a starting role spot was not expected at first,” he said this week. Increased playing time meant that Tokoto could afford to be more disciplined. Unlike during his freshman season, he didn’t feel like he had to make a splash with every touch of the ball. “The major jump I made from freshman to sophomore year was with turnovers,” he said. “I tried to create a lot freshman year, just to kind of prove myself that I could be out there and it wasn’t all about that (last year).” Tokoto turned the ball over 31 times as a freshman, and 64 as a sophomore, but considering he was playing 20 more minutes per game, more than three times the minutes he’d had in 2012-13, it was a huge step forward. In fact, only Marcus Paige and James Michael McAdoo logged more minutes than Tokoto.
And so, after proving himself as a true impact player for the Tar Heels last year, Tokoto moves forward with the confidence of a player who knows he’s earned his time and now looks to continue his arc of improvement. He’s proven himself as a slasher and high flyer; now it’s about becoming even more dangerous with his jump shot. The shooting helps the drive, and vice versa. A one-dimensional player can be shut down easily: make them uncomfortable by taking away their strength. Tokoto becomes more difficult to defend if he can score in multiple ways. “Guys are starting to notice that I can actually hit the shot now,” he said. “They’re playing me a little closer, which makes it easier to go around them.”
Tokoto has been putting up 200 additional shots with assistant Coach Hubert Davis, 100 before practice, 100 after. He’s working on improving his mechanics, keeping the elbow in and maintaining his follow through. “Bringing it in closer to my body and kind of holding it there,” he said. “It’s definitely affected my shot positively. That was the one pice of advice that I took from Coach that I just rolled with.”
So the junior is looking to keep defenders on a yo-yo in 2014-15: pull them in with a quality jumper, then make them play on their heels with his ability to slash. “Next year, I anticipate scouting reports to say pretty much ‘Rondo closeout,’ give him space, don’t let him drive around you,” he said, referring to the Boston Celtics’ Rajon Rondo, who is much better driving than shooting. “I’m hoping they say that, (I’ll) knock down a few shots to make them play up on me. I’m looking forward to that.”
In addition to shooting, Tokoto is working on his ball-handling. Ordinarily, he’d look to pass immediately after snaring a defensive rebound. Now, he can help his teammates by having the option of putting the ball down, for example allowing Marcus Paige to move without the ball.
Tokoto can also be a leader to his young, talented teammates. His experience of going from nine to 29 minutes per game from his freshman and sophomore year, from role player to reliable scorer and ACC-All Defensive team member can be a lesson to younger players. Attitude went a long way for Tokoto from one year to the next, and he believes it will help the team. “Just keeping a positive attitude,” he said. “I feel like that will take us leaps and bounds.”
And after two years of falling out of the NCAA Tournament in the first weekend, the Tar Heels believe they’ll take those leaps and bounds in 2014-15. Early preseason rankings have Carolina among the nation’s best. And though no one has higher expectations than the team themselves, they know that the preseason is just that. “They don’t really mean anything,” Tokoto said. “We knocked off (preseason) 1, 2, 3, 4, and the list goes on, so it’s just about who’s going to be tougher, who’s going to have that chemistry on the court and who’s going to make the tough plays throughout the season. I feel like we’re going to be that team. What we went through last year and what we did what we accomplished should roll over for us into this year.”
J.P. Tokoto has proven his ability to learn from one year and become even better the next time. If it works for Tokoto, odds are, it'll work for the team.