Once a seldom-used freshman, Tokoto now a key piece for Heels

With North Carolina holding a five-point lead in the final minutes of the first half during its second-round NCAA Tournament matchup against Providence, J.P. Tokoto added to his sophomore highlight reel by making the type of flashy play that he became known for during his second season with the Tar Heels. Deflecting a pass from the Friars’ Josh Fortune on the defensive end of the floor, Tokoto picked up the steal, took three dribbles while crossing the timeline on a one-on-one fast break and spun around the defender in the lane before rising for a two-handed dunk.

The play didn’t come at the most critical point in the game, and Tokoto’s scoring wasn’t the reason his team won, but one thing was clear: J.P. Tokoto was comfortably making plays in a key role.

As a rookie during the 2012-13 season, the small forward played sparingly for Roy Williams’ team as he seemed timid every time he touched the ball. Despite once being the top-ranked recruit in his high school class early in his prep career, Tokoto struggled in his first season at UNC and only averaged 8.6 minutes per game.

“Most of it was mental, to be honest,” Tokoto said of that year. “I tried to create a lot freshman year just to prove to myself that I could be out there, and it wasn’t all about that.”

During last offseason, the Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, native worked on multiple areas of his game, including shooting and limiting turnovers. Even as a sophomore, though, Tokoto admits that he wasn’t expecting to go from playing behind four players to cracking the starting rotation. That all changed when wing players P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald encountered NCAA issues that kept them sidelined all the way through the beginning of the season. Tokoto was forced into starting at the 3 for a team that would inevitably face distractions.

“I think we did a great job of just fighting through adversity and just handling the whole situation,” Tokoto said.

As a sophomore, Tokoto averaged 9.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game while also earning All-ACC Defensive Team honors from both the media and the league’s head coaches. He also became a Tar Heel fan favorite along the way because of his athleticism and dunking ability.

Williams’ starting lineup for next year hasn’t been finalized, but Tokoto will definitely be a part of it. Since the conclusion of his sophomore campaign, the rising junior has continued working with assistant coach Hubert Davis on improving his perimeter shooting. Tokoto says he’s already noticing the impact it’s had on his game when playing pickup.

“They’re playing me a little closer, which makes it easier to go around them.” 

Tokoto didn’t have much of a problem getting around players and attacking the rim against Providence and other opponents last season. If it becomes easier in Year 3, he could be in for a big junior year.