Paging J.P.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When a reporter asked Roy Williams on Friday what stood out about junior wing J.P. Tokoto’s performance in Monday’s loss to Virginia, the 12th-year UNC head coach paused for a lengthy seven seconds before answering.

“Just wasn’t involved,” Williams said. “Just wasn’t as involved as much as he wanted to be, I wanted him to be, the whole bit.”

The most intriguing aspect of Tokoto’s stat line is what it lacked. Typically a stat-sheet stuffer, he scored just one point, missed all three of his field goal attempts and grabbed one rebound. He did dish out three assists without committing a turnover, but defensive lapses were also an area of concern.

Williams delved into the toughness aspect of defense briefly, reflecting upon the requirement of such a characteristic against Bobby Knight’s Indiana teams and his assembly line of screens. If you gave up against that physical and mental barrage, then the Hoosiers would score a layup.

Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers play a different style than Knight’s old teams, but the toughness angle provides an apt comparison.

“You’ve got to have the patience to stay with it and stay with it and stay with it,” Williams said. “And if you don’t… On one possession, for 20 seconds everybody was doing exactly what they wanted to do, and then all of a sudden, J.P. lost sight of him and [Malcolm] Brogdon was laying it up.”

Every player has a bad game. What’s noteworthy of Tokoto’s performance on Monday is that it followed a pair of games in which he turned the ball over 12 times.

Tokoto has been really good for UNC at times this season. He’s second on the team in assists (93) and steals (29) and had led or shared the team lead in assists 12 times.

Inconsistency with the ball in his hands, however, has been an enduring problem. After scoring 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting and dishing out eight assists against one turnover in UNC’s win over East Carolina in early December, Tokoto managed just 12 points on 4-of-11 shooting with three assists and 12 turnovers in the next two games against Kentucky and UNCG.

He opened ACC play with a 7:2 assist-turnover mark against Clemson and two days later posted a 2:3 ratio against Notre Dame. After tallying six assists and one turnover in wins over Wake Forest and Florida State, Tokoto dished out nine assists against 12 turnovers against Syracuse and Louisville.

While Tokoto has developed a reputation for attempting risky passes – too many, according to his coaches – his move from the 3-spot to the two was thought to counter that issue by improving UNC’s rebounding efforts.

In some games, that’s played out as Williams had hoped. Tokoto’s solo rebound against Virginia, however, was a season-low, and he’s averaging just 4.5 rebounds in conference play, which includes a strong 11-rebound effort at Louisville last weekend.

“I’ve been pushing him because I had a two-guard one time at Kansas average 7.2 rebounds per game,” Williams said. “Now that’s rebounding from the two-guard spot.”

To his credit, Tokoto’s never been one to lose faith in his abilities. His confidence is evident in his play – see the risky passes that are occasionally spectacular – and so any concern about handling his current skid on an emotional level should be dismissed.

“He’s a pretty fiery guy and competitive, so I realize I probably don’t have to say as much to him,” junior guard Marcus Paige said. “Coach doesn’t have to push him as much because [Tokoto] can look at how he’s played the last couple of games and know that he’s going to try to respond in a big way, especially since Coach has been challenging him these last couple of days.”

North Carolina is at its best when Tokoto is loading up his stat line by attacking the glass and seeing the court with the appropriate conservative lens. A return to that consistent level of play will be critical for the junior wing over the second half of the ACC schedule.

Inside Carolina Top Stories