College Basketball

UNC's J.P. Tokoto entering the NBA draft: What to make of a strange decision?

J.P. Tokoto, seen here dunking during an NCAA tournament practice, told Yahoo! Sports that there’s more to his game than dunking and defense.
J.P. Tokoto, seen here dunking during an NCAA tournament practice, told Yahoo! Sports that there’s more to his game than dunking and defense. Robert Willett - rwillett@newsobserver.com

My first reaction upon reading the Yahoo! Sports report that J.P. Tokoto plans to skip his senior season at North Carolina to enter the NBA draft was probably a lot like yours: Huh? What? Really? This makes no sense.

But then, after some more thought, the immediate surprise wore off and it started to make sense -- a lot of it. Not because Tokoto might – as he thinks he can – work his way into becoming a first-round pick, or because, regardless of where he's picked (or isn't) this isn't the worst financial move (more on that later).

No, Tokoto's decision to enter the draft makes sense – at least more sense than it does in a vacuum – given that he just didn't appear all that happy this season. I'm not going to say Tokoto was a malcontent. That'd be too strong. But it's fair to question whether he ever really accepted his role on this team, and whether he caused the Tar Heels some chemistry issues.

Was there anything obvious to suggest he did? No. Nothing too obvious.

There weren't any memorable exchanges between Tokoto and his teammates – at least not during games – that suggested they didn't get along. Even so, I believe I watched this team in person more than anyone who makes a living doing so – with the exception of Roy Williams and company – and it was impossible to escape the thought that something was just … off … with Tokoto this season.

Maybe it was the body language. Maybe it was the fact that he often forced things – whether it was errant passes or poorly-timed pull-up jumpers that just seemed out of place in UNC's offense. There were times earlier in the season when Tokoto appeared on the verge of taking the next step and becoming an All-ACC type player. But he never took that step.

In fact, you could argue that he regressed in some areas as the season went on. There was that one stretch in late January and the first two weeks of February when Tokoto, to put it mildly, really struggled.

He committed six turnovers in back to back games against Syracuse and Louisville. In the next game, against Virginia, he finished with one point and was nearly absent from the box score. He didn't start the next two games, at Boston College and at Pittsburgh, where he finished with four points.

I remember talking to him inside the locker room after the Pitt game, and it was kind of a weird talk.

“My playing time hasn't been affected, I'm just not starting,” he said. “A lot more people make it a big deal than what it is. This is the second week in a row I got a question like that. My answer is simply it's basketball. I'm going to keep playing whether I'm starting or not. And it shouldn't be anything big to anybody else. It shouldn't even be a question.”

Clearly – at least it was clear to me – Tokoto didn't handle the demotion well. Then he returned to the starting lineup in UNC's next game, at Duke, and gave one of his finest performances of the season: 15 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, three steals in the Tar Heels' overtime defeat.

That was the maddening thing about Tokoto: he could do what he did at Duke. Or he could disappear. Or even worse, perhaps, than disappearing, he could hurt the team with turnovers and poor shots.

There were times this season when Marcus Paige, the team's unquestioned leader, questioned whether some of his teammates were in it for the right reasons – whether they were more dedicated to the team or to themselves, and their numbers. I remember one moment in particular when Paige did this, after UNC lost against Virginia on Feb. 2.

After that loss Paige said:

“We have talent. We have pieces. But if you don't have five guys buying in, playing every possession the way coach preaches, you know, it sounds cliché and it sounds – that's boring talk for media, it's not anything juicy for you guys. But it's the truth. When you have five guys committed to helping each other on the floor, working together, setting good screens to get right guys the ball. That's success. And then when you have talent, it elevates it to another level. So we're still somewhere trying to figure out how to get to that point.”

Paige went on:

“We can't keep talking about change. We've got to have guys look in the mirror and decide they're going to change, buy in, and then some good things will happen.”

Paige didn't name names but, naturally, all of us who heard what he had to say wondered who he was talking about. Williams certainly challenged the heart and hustle at times of Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks. So Paige's comments, in a sense, fit them. More than anyone, though, they seemed – at least to me – to be directed toward Tokoto.

Not because Tokoto was a bad teammate or a completely me-first player. But because there were times when what he was doing on the court seemed so far removed from what Williams wanted him to be doing. Some of what Tokoto told Yahoo! Sports' excellent NBA reporter Adrian Wojarnowski support the assertion that there was a disconnect between Tokoto and Williams.

Tokoto told Wojarnowski: “I feel like there can be a lot more to me as a player, more than just the defensive player who can occasionally dunk the ball. I know I can be so much more, but I’m not sure that I’m pushed to be that much more (in college).”

It's a strange thing for Tokoto to say, that he wasn't pushed, given that Williams appeared – at least publicly – to push Tokoto as hard as anyone with the possible exception of Johnson. Then again, Tokoto could have meant it in a way that he wasn't pushed to develop offensively – that perhaps Williams and the coaching staff chose to emphasize the things Tokoto proved he could do well: defend and finish in transition.

If Tokoto wanted a chance to do more than that, he was right to leave. His senior season was unlikely to be all that much different from his junior season. He was never going to be a leading option offensively for the Tar Heels. He was never going to be the guy UNC turned to for late points with a game on the line.

In fact, after Tokoto missed a late jump shot in the loss at Duke, Williams said, honestly, that Tokoto hadn't been the first, second or third option on that play. But those kinds of things likely irritated Tokoto, too. He saw more in himself – more, perhaps, than Williams saw. Then again, few college coaches showed more interest in Tokoto than Williams did during the recruiting process. Tokoto was, for a time, the centerpiece of the Tar Heels' 2012 recruiting class.

And he was, it can't be forgotten, the initial link between Paige and Williams, who began recruiting Paige only after Tokoto recommended him to Williams. Tokoto's three years at UNC, though, were a bit strange. He's as good of a natural athlete as just about anyone who's ever played at UNC, and some of his dunks provided some of the team's most memorable highlights in recent years.

Yet overall Tokoto was a confounding player. He could be an excellent all-around contributor one game and then could go missing the next. Tokoto never seemed to lack for confidence but at times he lacked the production to go along with it. You got the sense that maybe he thought he was above his role player status, that he believed he should have been something more.

And now he'll get the chance to prove himself. Tokoto told Wojnarowski that he was better off working with professional trainers and coaches during the offseason.

“I think that’ll give me the best chance to grow than staying school and being that player that fit into the mold of my first three years (at UNC),” he said.

It was a comment befitting of Tokoto's ultimate goal of individual growth, which isn't a bad goal but one that, at times, could conflict with what's best for a college basketball team comprised of a lot of guys who, like Tokoto, arrived as a heralded prospect. Tokoto will receive some criticism from fans, and some UNC supporters will find it easy to make fun of it.

After all, here's a guy who didn't even average 10 points per game, who led the Tar Heels in turnovers, trying to go to the NBA. Who does he think he is? Regardless of whether he's drafted, though, Tokoto will do well financially, either in the NBA or overseas. He'll make more money than the vast majority of people who will graduate from UNC in the next two years.

Of course, he could have done the same had he stuck around for his senior season. Maybe to Tokoto, though, the writing was on the wall. By now he would have met with Williams to discuss individual goals and the vision for the future, and maybe Tokoto didn't like what he heard. Maybe he saw a decrease in playing time coming.

This is a decision that Tokoto believes is the best one for him. In a lot of ways, it could be best for UNC, too.

Carter: 919-829-8944;

Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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