Loss of P.J. Hairston brings opportunity for J.P. Tokoto at UNC

acarter@newsobserver.comOctober 1, 2013 

— From a distance, J.P. Tokoto understood that a teammate’s loss could be his gain.

He didn’t revel in P.J. Hairston’s summer of trouble, but Tokoto knew that because of it, he might have an opportunity to play a greater role entering his sophomore season at North Carolina.

“The things that happened with P.J. are unfortunate,” Tokoto, a 6-foot-5 forward, said last week. “But I’m going to have to step up even more now – fill a bigger role until he comes back, and continue filling that role wherever coach needs me.”

It remains unclear how much time Hairston will miss. Coach Roy Williams said last week Hairston would miss games – plural – because of his offseason transgressions, but then he backtracked, perhaps in jest, to articulate the uncertainty of the suspension.

“I’ve said he’s going to miss some games,” Williams said. “And maybe I should say game or games, maybe should be what I say. But I said games. You can look at it that way, and it’s no question that there’s going to be some minutes that somebody else is going to play, and that should help them.”

The length of time the Tar Heels will be without Hairston is the greatest unknown. Right after that, though, the most obvious question is this: How do they fill his void?

After entering the starting lineup midway through last February, Hairston became UNC’s most productive offensive player. He averaged 18.2 points during the final 13 games, and in five of those he made at least four 3-pointers. UNC’s small starting lineup worked mostly because Hairston made it work.

With Hairston, UNC’s starting lineup might have been predictable to start this season: Marcus Paige at point guard, Leslie McDonald alongside him in the backcourt, Hairston at small forward, with James Michael McAdoo and Brice Johnson on the interior. Without Hairston, though, Williams’ plans are in flux.

“We could go little,” Williams said. “We could go extra little, with two point guards in the lineup. We could go bigger … we could see three guys 6-8 or (taller). Or we could see two guys that I look eyeball to eyeball with.”

Tokoto might have the most to gain amid the temporary loss of Hairston, who is practicing with the team while UNC attempts to finalize his status. From the moment he arrived on campus a season ago, Tokoto was perhaps already UNC’s most athletic player – one who pleased crowds with his talent for jumping and dunking.

Tokoto became something of a fan favorite before games, when he sometimes showed off his athleticism, but translating his physical skills to the court proved difficult. By the time January turned to February, Tokoto’s playing time had dwindled. When he did play, he rarely tried to initiate anything offensively.

He finished the season averaging 2.6 points in about nine minutes of playing time per game.

The limited role was a change for player who’d built his game on explosiveness – on attacking the rim and often jumping over defenders to get there. Tokoto’s limited role, too, was reflective of a rough transition from highly sought-after recruit to college freshman.

“I wasn’t really worried about shooting that much, because last year I was just in a funk in my mind,” Tokoto said. “I look at my stats (10-of-26 from the free throw line, and 1-for-11 on 3-pointers). Coming from high school, I shot a lot better than that. It was kind of a hard transition for me.

“But this year, I’m looking forward to just getting out there and proving everybody wrong now.”

That process began last week, during UNC’s first practice. After Hairston entered the starting lineup last season, he played an average of 31 minutes per game. Now those minutes will be divvied up and distributed how Williams sees fit.

Williams expressed a desire to play a more traditional lineup this season – a lineup, he hopes, with a reliable post presence – but he and his staff have more than a month to determine their best starting five. McDonald, the team’s only scholarship senior, hesitated to guess what that lineup might look like.

“Last year was last year,” McDonald said. “We had a good chance with running the small lineup. But we don’t know about this year. … I can’t really tell you if we’re going to go small, big or whatever.”

After Williams suspended Hairston indefinitely – a suspension that has been lifted, in part given his return to practice – Tokoto said he shared conversations with some of UNC’s assistant coaches, including Hubert Davis.

Tokoto understood already the opportunity in front of him, yet he said those conversations with Davis and others helped articulate it.

“I kind of sat down and thought to myself, ‘This is happening, this is what could potentially happen to P.J.,’” Tokoto said. “I need to be ready for whatever happens.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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