The Curious Case of J.P. Tokoto

Even after the Tar Heels extended their winning streak to six with a 93-83 victory over Syracuse a week ago, their good luck charm took a “Marshawn Lynch” approach with reporters after the game—saying absolutely nothing, in order to protect the motivational secrets he shares with the team.

Gerry Bear is no ordinary oversized stuffed teddy. The self-described “little homie to the UNC basketball team” is orange, fluffy, and all he does is win. Surrounded by reporters that night, and using Brice Johnson as his mouthpiece, the superstitious Gerry was in no mood to reveal his tactics, saying that he just tells the boys to “play hard.”

The answer to the other question he fielded was also no surprise. Gerry wasted no time in having Brice declare that J.P. Tokoto is his favorite player, and main caretaker.

J.P. and Gerry taking in a JV game at the Dean Dome. (Photo courtesy Twitter @GerryTheUNCBear)

J.P. and Gerry taking in a JV game at the Dean Dome. (Photo courtesy Twitter @GerryTheUNCBear)

Tokoto and Bear’s relationship has inspired plenty of curiosity among those surrounding the team this year, but in all seriousness, it’s J.P.’s play on the court during his time in Chapel Hill that has brought more curiosity than anything else.

It all started around the year 2010. Tokoto had just finished his sophomore year in high school at Menomonee Falls in Wisconsin.  He had already reached his current height of 6’6” and his explosive athleticism had caught the interest of most of the nation’s elite programs. It was seen as a recruiting battle between Duke and UNC, along with Wisconsin, his hometown school, for one of the nation’s top young prospects.

Many recruiting experts felt that once Tokoto developed a jumper, improved his work ethic, and showed more play-making ability, he would surely be an All-American type of player.

Bob Gibbons, a distinguished recruiting analyst, said during Tokoto’s junior season that “He reminds me of a young Kobe Bryant, he plays with that kind of style. Now obviously, his shot is nowhere near where Kobe’s is, but Kobe really worked on his shot. The question is how hard will (Tokoto) work?”

Duke pulled out of the race for his services, preferring to stick with their class led by Rasheed Sulaimon (how did that work out?) and Amile Jefferson. The decision then came down to Carolina and Wisconsin.

It was Roy Williams who never lost faith in J.P. He committed to Chapel Hill in March 2011, as a junior.

Throughout 2012, his final year in high school, his development stayed somewhat stagnant. YouTube became filled with numerous highlight videos of his athletic dunks, but there was still an APB out for his jumper and ability to create opportunities for teammates.

A slip in the rankings followed, with respected recruiting website dropping him from the top 10 in 2010’s sophomore list, all the way to number 73 by the time his class were seniors in 2012.


Tokoto's jump shot has been the subject of criticism for years. (Todd Melet)

Tokoto’s jump shot has been the subject of criticism for years. (Todd Melet)

Freshman year at UNC was an adjustment for Tokoto, as he averaged just eight minutes per game and reached double figures in scoring just twice all season.  He sat and watched as P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald carried the load on the wing for the team. Coach Williams still wanted to see improvements in Tokoto’s playmaking and shooting abilities.

Eligibility controversies surrounded Hairston and McDonald heading into J.P.’s sophomore year, thrusting him into a much bigger role. His minutes skyrocketed to almost 30 a game and there were flashes of brilliance at times, including an incredible stat-sheet stuffing performance against Davidson, where he put up a career-high 22 points to go along with 11 rebounds, five steals, four blocks, and two assists. Numbers like that aren’t possible without possessing incredible natural-born talent.

It’s also important to remember that his size and athleticism greatly helps him on the defensive end, where he almost always guards the opponents’ top wing player, both last year and this year.

But then there’s also the constant frustrations he brings to fans with some of those glaring holes in his game. Last season he shot just 22 percent from the three-point line, and sank only 50 percent of his free throws, while also turning the ball over twice per game. This year those numbers have improved a bit (36% 3PT, 61% FT), but his overall shooting has dropped from 49 percent as a sophomore to 42 percent and turnovers have increased in this, his junior season.

He’s been the poster child for the reason that so many oppenents have packed their defenses in tight, or played zone, against UNC.  They practically dare him to shoot.

These defensive strategies have led J.P. to place a much greater emphasis on creating shots for his teammates. Nobody would have guessed going into 2015 that J.P. Tokoto would hold the team lead in assists, but that’s exactly what happened, until Marcus Paige just recently climbed back to the top of that list. His scoring, however, has remained right at 9 points per game.

This sight never fails to get the Smith Center crowd on their feet. (Todd Melet)

This sight never fails to get the Smith Center crowd on their feet. (Todd Melet)

To make things clear, no player on this Tar Heel team gets the Smith Center rocking like J.P. Tokoto. When he gets the ball on the fast-break, you can feel the anticipation in the air as number 13 cocks the ball behind his head with one hand–and the dome erupting once he throws it down with vicious authority.

On the flip side of that, no player on this Tar Heel team gets the Smith Center groaning like J.P. Tokoto, either. Fans know the sight. He’s dribbling out there on the wing, crossing his defender over, and then slithering into the lane, where often times he’s awaited by two or three help defenders, resulting in an errant lay-up attempt that usually clanks off the side of the rim.

Against Syracuse last week, Tokoto scored seven points, dished out six assists, snared four rebounds, and exhausted great energy chasing Orange sharpshooter Trevor Cooney around on defense all night long. He also fouled out and turned the ball over six times. In Louisville Saturday, Tokoto had a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds, but again had six turnovers and clanked a crucial jumper with the game tied and one minute to play. And in his most recent game, at home Monday in the loss to Virginia, Tokoto had his worst game of the year, scoring only one point to go along with just one rebound.

There’s no denying that the kid has huge talent. In fact that’s probably the biggest issue. It’s hard, sometimes, to focus on what he does provide, when you can’t help yourself from wanting to see more.

As Coach Williams likes to say, “Everything looks better when the ball goes in the basket.”

The Carolina-Kentucky Cold War

Here in Chapel Hill, during basketball season, the motto has always been that championships are won by playing “The Carolina Way.”

A phrase coined by legendary coach and hall of famer Dean Smith, “The Carolina Way” came to be revered as a national model for how to run a successful college basketball program. Players came to school to stay in school. They played for the name on the front of the jersey, not the one on the back. Championship teams were built with integrity over the long haul. The legends knew they would be revered as local heroes forever.

The national title-clinching jumper by a freshman named Michael Jordan, Eric Montross going to the foul line with blood flowing down his forehead, Danny Green soaring over Greg Paulus for a dunk that silenced Cameron Indoor; they’re all moments that are etched in Tar Heel lore, but moments that feel oh so long ago.

The game simply doesn’t work that way anymore. Times have changed.  Nowhere will that be more evident than noon-time this Saturday at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky.

Heard of this guy? (

Heard of this guy? (

The instituting of the NBA’s age limit kicked off the “one and done” era of college hoops, and no school has used that rule to their advantage as much as coach John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats. A revolving door for the top prospects in the nation year in and year out, Kentucky is not a college basketball team. They are a professional basketball factory that churns out NBA players on an assembly line. These guys come to campus to become all-stars, not scholars, and certainly not college heroes.

This season, on the way to the top national ranking and an unblemished 10-0 record, the Wildcats have demolished opponents by an average of 30 points a game, with nobody coming closer than 10 points. Analysts can’t stop gushing about their “platoon system.” Five guys come in and five guys come out every four minutes. Of their ten rotation players, nine were high-school All-Americans. Only one player is smaller than 6’6”. Their coach claims they don’t have substitutions, just reinforcements. With a national title in 2012 and an appearance in the championship game just last season, Kentucky has proven to the nation that, for better or for worse, titles these days seem to come “The Kentucky Way.”

Five Kentucky players check in (

Five Kentucky players check in (

The Tar Heels (6-2) will come in to this matchup as huge underdogs, just like Rocky Balboa against Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.  Rocky went into the fight as the champ, but he was past his prime and on the down-side of his career. Carolina will arrive in Lexington with a great past filled with history and championships, but also not quite at its peak.

Kentucky, on the other hand, comes in looking like a mirror image of Drago, a beefed-up super-human ready to crush anything in its path.

Rocky and Drago served as symbols for the United States and the Soviet Union, much as UNC and Kentucky each represent their own “way” of program-building. With the tides already beginning to shift in college basketball, Calipari and his boys are looking to validate their methods by making a statement against a Tar Heel squad that has looked shaky in recent weeks. Don’t be surprised if you catch UK’s 7 foot center Willie Cauley-Stein staring down Kennedy Meeks at tip-off by saying “I must break you.”

How Kentucky has looked so far this year (MGM)

How Kentucky has looked so far this year (MGM)

UNC coach Roy Williams came away from his team’s loss last week to Iowa in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge questioning his players’ effort level. Players lazily went through the motions on offense, often times stopping to watch as Marcus Paige hoisted yet another contested jumper from deep. Shot after shot clanged off the rim en route to shooting below 30 percent. While Coach Williams has also proclaimed this to be one of the best offensive rebounding squads he’s ever had, it’s become very clear to opponents that outside shooting is this team’s Achilles (Tar)Heel. There just simply isn’t enough shooting talent on this team.

The battle on the boards becomes crucial if Carolina’s outside shooting woes continue.  Forward Brice Johnson, coming off a 19-point, 17-rebound performance in a win over East Carolina, will need to find a way to crash the offensive glass for put-backs against a much larger Wildcat frontcourt. Even with his offseason weight-loss, Kennedy Meeks’ stamina will be seriously tested against the platoon system, so it may become crucial for UNC to find another source of rebounding off the bench, such as Joel James or Isaiah Hicks.

Marcus Paige has often struggled creating space against big guards like Kentucky’s Andrew and Aaron Harrison, however, he remains the Tar Heels’ only respectable threat from the three-point line to this point in the season.  It remains to be seen what kind of consistent offensive contributions will come from freshmen Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson, but as defenses continue to pack the paint and force UNC to shoot from outside, any production they provide from outside could be the key to not only this game, but the entire rest of the season.


Brice Johnson reacts with Joel James against ECU (Todd Melet)

Brice Johnson reacts with Joel James against ECU (Todd Melet)

At a time when it’s clear that college basketball has changed forever, this game between two of the top three winningest programs of all-time will be a portrait of two different eras, the old and the new. Kentucky will play at home as heavy favorites against a Carolina team that has been plagued not only by effort and the recent academic scandal, but also by a refusal to make changes to its sacred “Carolina Way.”

Even Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski has adapted his style of recruiting to appeal to “one and done” type prospects in order to re-enter the national title competition after long refusing to change his own program’s once sacred ways.

The truth is, though, as we all remember, Rocky beat Ivan Drago. When he did, he won the support of the Russian crowd by declaring, in that thick Sylvester Stallone voice, that “If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!”

For the Tar Heels to rise from their recent dark spot, they may just need to take a lesson from the Champ. It may be time for Carolina to change its Way.


Game Notes: UNC won last year’s meeting 82-77 at the Smith Center, and holds a 23-13 lead in the all-time series between the two teams. UNC has been to 18 Final Fours (most all-time), while UK has been to 15 (T-3rd all-time). Kentucky has the most wins in college basketball history, while Carolina is 3rd on that list.

Priceless Gem: Roy on Dean Smith

CHAPEL HILL–Carolina basketball legend Dean Smith will deservedly be receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom Nov. 20. And UNC head basketball coach Roy Williams recently talked with WNCN about his mentor, the man who has inspired him more than any other, and his health.

Coach Williams gave an update on Smith’s ongoing battle with dementia, saying Coach is definitely struggling, but that he still has his bright moments. And Coach Williams says he has seen the crippling disease strike his family as well.

“Coach is struggling. There is no question about that. He’ll still have some good moments, but it’s a very cruel disease. My sister got it at 50 and she was dead at 60, so I’ve been through it myself,” Coach Williams says.

Tragically, Coach Williams says it is hit or miss whether Smith recognizes him, and this speaks to the cruel nature of progressive dementia.

“It depends. Sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn’t [recognize me]. It’s just the memory loss, and the things that you have are cruel,” Coach Williams says.

Back in his prime, Smith was renowned for his remarkable memory. Coach Williams recalls some of those strokes of genius.

“You’re talking about the guy who had the best memory of anyone I’ve known in my entire life. He could see a guy in the airport and five years later, the guy could say I remember meeting you in the airport, and Coach said yeah, you were going to St. Louis, and I was going to New York,” Coach Williams says.

It is still unknown whether Coach Smith will be making the trip up to the White House to accept the Medal of Freedom in person on Nov. 20.


P.J. Hairston Says He’ll Play

CHAPEL HILL – UNC’s P.J. Hairston is making his own statements now.

The rising junior basketball standout told The Daily Tar Heel that he had finished his homework and was bored. So what did he do? He sent out a tweet that he’d be playing on the courts and stepped outside.

Despite being suspended indefinitely by Head Coach Roy Williams on Aug. 18 following a reckless driving charge, Hairston told The Daily Tar Heel not to worry because he will be playing for the Tar Heels this season.

“Yeah, I’ll be on the court,” Hairston said. “I’m not sure how long I’ll have to sit out. I haven’t found out yet, but whatever it is I’m ready for it.”

However, UNC team spokesman Steve Kirschner didn’t back P.J. up. He says there is no update on Hairston’s status for the upcoming season.

Kobe Bryant Reveals Tar Heel Leanings

Photo courtesy of

LOS ANGELES – Sorry, Dookies. It looks like NBA legend Kobe Bryant is a Tar Heel after all.

It was widely believed that, had Bryant chosen to play college ball instead of leaping from high school straight into the NBA, that he would have made the trip down to Durham rather than Chapel Hill.

But in a pleasant surprise, Bryant said in a conversation with talk show host Jimmy Kimmel that he would have been donning Carolina Blue in his college years.

Although he says he has a close relationship with Duke Coach and US basketball head coach, Mike Krzyzewski, he admits that he was leaning towards playing for recently-named Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Dean Smith.

In fact, Bryant says he cherishes the recruitment letter he received from Carolina’s priceless gem, Smith, all those years ago, and he has it tucked away as a special memento.

Heels To Be Featured In Three ‘Big Mondays’

CHAPEL HILL– The UNC men’s basketball team will be getting plenty of national attention this coming season.

On Wednesday, ESPN announced its “Big Monday” TV lineup and the Tar Heels will be showcased in three of those games.

Carolina will play on January 20 in the Dean Dome against the Virginia Cavaliers, February 17 at the Florida State Seminoles, and March 3 back in Chapel Hill against the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.

The contest against the Irish will be one of the season’s highlights as it will mark the first time the squads have played since the 2008 Maui Invitational championship game.


The complete Big Monday lineup includes:

Jan. 13 – Virginia at Duke

Jan. 20 – North Carolina at Virginia

Jan. 27 ­- Duke at Pittsburgh

Feb. 3 – Notre Dame at Syracuse

Feb. 10 – Maryland at Virginia

Feb. 17 – North Carolina at FloridaState

Feb. 24 – Syracuse at Maryland

March 3 – Notre Dame at North Carolina

Hairston Charges Dropped, Punishment Still To Come

CHAPEL HILL  – Your local basketball team caught a break late last week, but it’s not out of the woods yet.

According to multiple media reports, the Durham County marijuana possession and driving without a license charges against rising junior star P.J. Hairston have been dropped.

Friday, the charges were dropped because Hairston reportedly received and completed a drug assessment. Upon completion, the state decided not to go further with the charges. Hairston also reportedly presented his current license in order to have the other charge dropped.

A statement last week by Head Coach Roy Williams said that punishment was unclear but that he and Hairston had discussions in which the player “knows he has made serious mistakes and there will be serious consequences as a result.”

Senior Associate Athletic Director for Communications, Steve Kirschner says Roy Williams and UNC Athletics do not currently have a timeline for commenting further on the situation.