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Winning The Mind Game

Once freshman J.P. Tokoto finishes summer school in July, he’ll fly home to Menomonee Falls, Wisc., and spend some quality time with his inspiration. That’s his nine-year-old little brother, who calls Tokoto every weekend after his basketball tournaments so the two can share their tales from the hardwood.

UNC forward J.P. Tokoto

Of course Tokoto is excited about reuniting with his entire family – who he said he is very close with – after his first full year away from home. But, he’s especially thrilled about spending time with his younger brother when he’ll coach his AAU basketball team, the Wisconsin Shooters, until he has to return to Chapel Hill. Last summer, Tokoto and classmate Joel James coached Tokoto’s little brother to the championship game in a 3-on-3 tournament. This year, they’re cranking up the competition.

“We get to go to a couple of tournaments, so I’m looking forward to that again,” Tokoto said. “He’s a nine year old playing with 11 year olds, and the same thing with his team. He plays with 10 year olds, but they play up a grade. A lot of competition comes our way, but we just beat them out. I love my group of guys.”

Perhaps, Tokoto’s time at the helm of the Shooters will be just what he needs to clear his head after a trying freshman season at North Carolina. Tokoto averaged 2.6 points and 1.7 rebounds for his freshman season while watching his minutes ebb and flow sporadically.

In fact, it was the instability of his playing time that got in his head and left him confused for much of the season. Just as he began to get comfortable in the rotation midway through the season, junior Leslie McDonald returned from a suspension and consumed the minutes Tokoto had previously played. It shook his confidence to the point where his production began to dip below a level he knew he could play.

“I was in practice trying to figure out what I did wrong,” Tokoto said. “A lot of it throughout the season was the mental part that kind of held me back, it wasn’t so much the physical part.”

Finally, Tokoto brought it up with coach Roy Williams. The Hall of Fame coach explained to Tokoto that the freshman was overthinking it. Tokoto didn’t realize it going into the season, but Williams is fiercely loyal to his upperclassmen, which leaves a young wing like Tokoto on the outside looking in for playing time. Williams told Tokoto that recent Tar Heel stars such as John Henson, Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston didn’t see the court much more than Tokoto during their freshman campaigns.

With that realization, Tokoto settled in and experienced an uptick in his play during the back half of the season. By focusing on doing the non-glamorous things such as hitting the offensive boards and defending, Tokoto carved out a niche for him to get on the court more often and begin to build the confidence he had lost along the way.
Tokoto never did find a completely clear head during the year, though. Once he got past the playing time issue, there were still other matters clouding his mind.

Tokoto was adjusting to talking to his siblings via FaceTime and over the phone rather than at the dinner table.

Tokoto is inspired by his younger brother.

All of a sudden, he was being “chewed out” for the first time in years. He would already beat himself up about a mistake he made in practice, and having Williams yell at him was only compounding the problem. Tokoto admitted that he took it more personally than he should have, and he’s since talked with Williams about how he best responds to different coaching techniques.

Further playing with Tokoto’s mind was a belief that he had to prove himself to the upperclassmen. That led him to take the Smith Center court with a stomach full of butterflies and an eagerness to make big plays to show that he belonged.

“A lot of that is maturity ... You get out there and get the ball in your hands, and you’re thinking, ‘What can I do to get to the basket; what can I do to get this shot to go in?’ And you’re thinking about it so much that when it leaves your hands, you’re like, ‘Oh man, why did I shoot that?’ Or, ‘I know I’m coming out after this play,’” Tokoto said. “I feel like every freshman goes through it. Looking back, there were a lot of plays I wish I could take back and do differently throughout the season.”
The good news for Tokoto? He survived that freshman season. Better yet, he’s already identified exactly what was holding him back from being the No. 1 recruit in the country he once was.

After several discussions with Williams and assistant coach Hubert Davis, Tokoto has a better understanding of his role with the Tar Heels and where his potential lies. And, with a full season under his belt, he’s learned the lessons that only come with real-life experience. Gone will be the days he takes games against non-conference cupcakes lightly, or he attempts an ambitious, highlight-reel play just to maximize the few minutes he has before being pulled out of the game.

“My confidence, honestly, is where it needs to be and where I expect to be at mentally when I get to next season, and a lot of that comes with experience,” Tokoto said. “I think a big part of it is realizing that I do belong here. Coach recruited me for a reason; I’m not just some guy who popped up.”

With his rediscovered confidence in tow, helping to alleviate the issues he had with the mental part of the game, Tokoto has worked diligently throughout summer to bolster the physical aspect. Most of that work has centered on ballhandling and shooting – especially shooting. He posted a 48.8 field goal percentage last year, but his 9.1 3-point percentage and 38.5 free throw percentage were numbers that played a significant role in keeping him off the court.

Tokoto works out with Davis, a former shooting specialist during his career at UNC and in the NBA, every day of summer. He arrives 20 minutes before the workout to get shots up on his own. He starts shooting from the mid-range area, gradually working back toward the 3-point line as he finds his rhythm.

To improve his shooting stroke, Tokoto is trying to get back to his high school roots, where he often found success creating shots off the dribble. Tokoto told Davis that he’s most comfortable when not being a set-up shooter, so the two work tirelessly at perfecting his shooting stroke off the bounce. It takes several rounds of 100 shots around the horn to accomplish that.

Tokoto has been working hard with UNC assistant coach Hubert Davis on his jump shot.

Tokoto says Davis has had the biggest impact of anyone at Carolina. But, he’s also sought help from another Tar Heel shooting specialist – Shammond Williams, who is a good friend of Tokoto’s father. Williams noticed that Tokoto was flinging his elbow out during his shot. Now, Tokoto is focusing on locking his elbow into position, which has helped him see “tremendous results.”

An improved jump shot allows Tokoto to utilize his quick first step and superior athleticism, and he’s already seen those facets of his arsenal blossom during summer pick-up games. Tokoto also has a push-up bet with trainer Jonas Sahratian. If he doesn’t increase his current weight from 201 pounds to 210 by the end of summer, he has to do 75 push-ups on the spot.

It’s a summer of hard work sandwiched in between increasingly difficult classes. But, it’s a process Tokoto is enjoying now that he can approach everything with a clear head for the first time at UNC. If all goes to plan, he’ll easily accomplish his simple sophomore-year goal of contributing more to the team.

“With Reggie and Dexter (Strickland) gone, and no wings coming until next year, Coach has told me that my role is going to be a lot bigger than last year, which is a great thing and nerve-racking at the same time,” Tokoto said. “I’ve got to work hard, and I know there are a lot of expectations. Everyone is expecting a lot, and I’m not one to disappoint.”

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