Up Close: J.P. Tokoto, Part I

MENOMONEE FALLS, Wisc. --- Right now it's just basketball with old friends. There are no scouts floating around or big time college head coaches stalking his every move, just a handful of classmates hanging out and throwing up jumpers.

J.P. Tokoto and his Menomonee Falls (Wisc.) teammates are just playing basketball on a Wednesday after school. Early season losses against top flight competition yielded to a three-game winning streak and a renewed hope in a run at the state tournament. The big crowds of the final early season invitation-only event loom in just days.

For now, though, it's just basketball with old friends, on an already dark winter evening. Another chance for the prep star to run with friends from back in the day, learn from coaches that have known him for years and dunk in the gym that made him a star. These types of nights are running out on Tokoto and his friends as he creeps closer to his departure to the University of North Carolina this summer.

"Since like sixth grade we've been playing together, that was when select ball and school ball started in seventh grade," Tokoto said of himself and teammate C.J. Malone. "I'll definitely miss it, I think about it all the time."

"7th grade was a lot of fun, we tried alley-oops and stuff but that didn't work until 8th grade."

Malone quickly chimed in on those early attempts.

"His coordination wasn't good enough back then," his friend noted.

The senior guard Malone, a career double digit scorer, would be the one to recognize change in his teammate and friend more so than any scout ever could. As sophomore contributors to the most successful prep team Malone and Tokoto have been a part of, the two have played together more nights than they can possibly remember. A few do stand out for the longtime friends.

"I still remember his first dunk," Malone said. "On a fastbreak I threw it off the back board to him."

There seems to be a story at every turn and Tokoto has a knack for remembering just about everyone around him. As he and Malone begin to describe an old teammate that was prone to setting up tip-dunks on overlays, we all turn to see that friend coincidentally walking by. No longer a teammate, but obviously still a friend, the two exchange memories each appreciated by them equally.

Tokoto and his teammates have had to take some bad with the good that having a Division I athlete on your team brings. They got to join in the excitement of Signing Day last November and perhaps down the line some will attend a game in Chapel Hill. They also have had to deal with criticism almost as much as Tokoto -- the mediocre record last year was just as hard on the friends around him as it was on the superstar.

"The good thing is that his teammates are very positive people, very down to earth and humble guys," Menomonee Falls head coach Dan Leffel said. "It always effects you when you have outside people doubting the team."

On the court, Tokoto has been known as someone that plays within the team and that has drawn questions that perhaps the 6-foot-6 high flier has tried a bit too hard to fit in as opposed to stand out. Leffel says that Tokoto getting teammates involved is a strength and a sign of a leader on the floor. His ability to keep other players involved has only strengthened Tokoto as an all around player.

"I think with the success we've had and how the role players have stepped up a little bit is because they see that JP trusts each individual player and individual abilities," Leffel said. "It helps with the overall morale and the overall camaraderie of all the guys."

With the amount of basketball Tokoto has played in the past six years and the amount of eyes that have been watching him, he knows it would have been impossible for him to please everyone on his way to signing with North Carolina. His focus always remained on those that he knew would never judge him based only on his play on the court.

"As a team we don't pay any attention to things like that anymore," Tokoto said. "It's not going to be every game when a guy is putting up 50 points and shooting every shot he can take."

"I'm more about the team than anything."

One thing is clear, even if the scouts and reports haven't appreciated Tokoto's concentration on a team effort, his teammates certainly have. Whether Tokoto is looking out for them off the court -- pushing for stories about them and including them in celebrations -- or on the court creating opportunities to flourish, they know where they stand.

"He is just an all-around good teammate," Malone said. "He'll pass to the open guy when he's open and he penetrates to get other people open."

"He just opens everything up for us on the court."

Check back tomorrow for Part II...

J.P. Tokoto Profile

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