North Carolina

JP Tokoto nears end of long journey to NBA Draft after surprising decision to leave UNC

UNC's J.P. Tokoto (13) puts up a shot over Syracuse's Rakeem Christmas (25) during their game on January 26, 2015, at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
UNC's J.P. Tokoto (13) puts up a shot over Syracuse's Rakeem Christmas (25) during their game on January 26, 2015, at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

By the time he found himself in Boston late last week, J.P. Tokoto had been in 13 cities recently – 14, if you count a brief visit home in Wisconsin – and all the while he was looking forward to the last of his travels, for now, when he attends the NBA draft in New York City on Thursday.

“Well,” Tokoto said before listing the places he’d been for workouts with NBA teams. “I started in Utah, went to San Antonio, went to Indiana. From Indiana, went to Phoenix.

“Phoenix to L.A. to work out with the Lakers. Went from L.A. to Brooklyn, Brooklyn to Minnesota. Minnesota to Portland. Portland to Detroit. Detroit to Dallas, Dallas to Houston. And then went home for a little bit for like three days, and then flew out to Toronto, and then from Toronto came here.”

“Here” being Boston, before scheduled trips to Milwaukee, then Atlanta and then, finally, New York. Tokoto, whose decision to leave North Carolina after his junior season was – to put it mildly – viewed with skepticism, is projected as a second-round selection in the draft.

No matter, though. Asked what his plans were for draft day he said, simply, “I’m going to go to the draft with my family.” Projected second-rounders don’t often attend the draft but, then again, players with Tokoto’s numbers – 8.3 points, 5.6 rebounds per game during his junior season – don’t often leave school early, either.

He did, though, and that decision, he said, and questions about it have followed him everywhere – from Salt Lake City to San Antonio to Indianapolis and wherever else. NBA teams want to know whether Tokoto really has improved his jump shot, sure.

But they also want to poke around his mind, too. They want to know why, Tokoto said.

“Why now – why’d you declare now,” he said, repeating the questions he’s received so many times. “And with that question, it’s purely just being honest. I mean, they’ve got to respect your honesty and your decision.”

So Tokoto tells them why. He tells them he wanted to prove he can be more than the player he was for three years in college. That he’s more than a just a defender, or just an athlete who can finish wide-open fast breaks with memorable dunks.

Tokoto knew what he was at UNC and likely would have been had he returned for his senior season. Though he started the past two seasons, Tokoto never became more than a bit player offensively.

So much of an afterthought on offense was Tokoto that once, after he missed a mid-range jump shot late in the loss at Duke last season, UNC coach Roy Williams said, candidly, that Tokoto wasn’t the first, second or third option.

So when asked that question, Tokoto told teams about how he felt “it was my time.” He spoke of wanting to invest in his future.

“I tell them about how being at Carolina, offensively I wasn’t asked to do anything,” Tokoto said. “And after three years, that gets kind of old. So if I was going to go back to school this year for my senior year, in order to boost my draft stock I would have to show improvement offensively, and I don’t think I was going to be able to do that.”

The way Tokoto tells it, he decided to leave after talking with his parents while he was home in Wisconsin over Easter break. Then came time to tell Williams.

When he returned to Chapel Hill, Tokoto already had a meeting set up with Williams. Tokoto said he told Williams “man-to-man, straight up” that he was leaving, to which Williams reacted with surprise.

“I did tell him I didn’t think it was the smartest decision,” Williams told Sports Illustrated. “But he felt strongly that that’s what he wanted to do, so I told him I would support him.”

Tokoto was something of a mercurial player at UNC, especially during his junior season. He could alternate between productive stretches of versatility and ones of ineptitude, when he appeared lost.

There was one particularly difficult three-game stretch in February when he missed 12 of 15 shots and played so lackadaisically it prompted questions about what was wrong with him. He acknowledged last week that he “went through a funk.”

“But I broke out of it, definitely,” he said. “I mean, it was a long season. Never in my career did I want to transfer or leave early. I never thought about that at all, until after the season when my dad said it’s time to start thinking about your future.”

Tokoto attempted to address his offensive shortcomings at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where he trained for four weeks before the NBA combine and one week after it, before he started attending individual workouts. At IMG, he focused particularly on shooting mechanics.

There was nothing, Tokoto said, that he needed to “change drastically” about his shot. The changes were subtle. Keeping his elbow in. Directing his follow-through toward the rim and not away from it.

Tokoto addressed his footwork, too. He worked on what he described as “stepping into the jump shot” as opposed to catching a pass flat-footed and then attempting to begin a move.

The changes showed at the combine, at least, where in two games he made 11 of 12 shots. Still, Tokoto is seen as something of an enigma – a player whose potential is defined by his athleticism and defensive ability, and one whose offensive prowess remains in question.

DraftExpress.com, perhaps the foremost NBA draft website, projects Tokoto to the Brooklyn Nets with the 41st overall pick. When word first spread of his decision to leave UNC, it would have been reasonable to doubt whether Tokoto might be picked at all, but his draft stock seems stable now.

“As far as projections, I’m not really trying to pay attention – because you don’t really know,” Tokoto said. “You don’t really know for sure. But I definitely helped myself out (at) the combine.”

That has remained his goal since he left school – to help himself, to improve incrementally and, little by little, make believers of the doubters. Now the night Tokoto has been working toward is finally here, one day away, and he’ll be there to experience it after a long, well-traveled journey.

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Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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