A man full of surprises, ex-Tar Heel J.P. Tokoto prepares for NBA draft
The night after his annual postseason meeting with coach Roy Williams, J.P. Tokoto boarded a flight to Menomonee Falls, Wis., to spend Easter weekend at home. There were so many questions he needed to answer, but on that first night, his father told him to go to sleep. Tomorrow, he said, they’d talk about the future.
Tokoto first floated the idea to his parents in January. In what had become a family tradition, the trio had gone to dinner following a North Carolina game, then retired to the parents’ hotel room to talk. He was considering entering his name in the 2015 NBA draft, he said. What did they think? They had their concerns, as parents tend to do, but January wasn’t the time to address them. Now, over three days in early April, it was time.
One issue stood out. Only four names on the Tar Heels’ 17-man roster would need replacing in 2015-2016. Four scholarship seniors and all five starters would be returning. The Tar Heels were an early preseason favorite, with a title shot feasibly within reach, and Tokoto—in his third season as a starter—would play an intrinsic part.
“J.P., are you going to be able to watch your teammates in the Final Four? In the championship?” Trevor Trimble asked his son. “Because, J.P., the same time you’re watching them, you could be in the D-League. Or you could be not even drafted, you could be overseas somewhere. Can you handle that?”
He gave his son the weekend to think. By Sunday, as Tokoto packed his bags for his return trip to Chapel Hill, N.C., he had his answers. He would forgo his senior season at North Carolina and declare for the NBA draft.
Trimble knew this wasn’t the time for praise or reassurance. The only way to help his son now was with the truth:
“J.P., your preparation is going to have to get better,” he said. “Or you will fail.
“Or. You. Will. Fail. Period.”
“The way players are coming up in the game now, there’s a stigma of staying in school for four years,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. “I don’t know that J.P. would have improved his draft status by coming back to school. I think he would have cemented who everybody thought he was.”
A senior season had the potential to doom Tokoto. If he failed to show noticeable improvement, pro teams would have little reason to believe he could grow into a bonafide NBA player. But if he did develop his skills, his size and athleticism could make him a lottery pick.
“There’s precedent for everything working out,” Bilas said. “And there’s precedent for it not.”
The only certainty amid the capriciousness of the draft’s speculative nature is that the leap is a gamble. Tokoto’s basketball tapestry is held together by his springboard legs and defensive aptitude, but in his collegiate record there are loose threads, if not tears, that might turn away potential patrons. The coming months would give the 21 year old the chance to conduct some patchwork. Yet three days after he made up his mind to turn pro, Tokoto could only provide one answer to one person: He was leaving college, and Williams needed to know.
A week after the original end-of-season meeting, Tokoto called for another. His mother, Laurence, pleaded with Trimble to fly out with their son, to be there for him when it was over. Trimble joined the Tokoto family when he married Laurence 13 years ago, “but that’s my dad,” Tokoto said. “He’s been there for me since Day One.”
This time, the best way for Trimble to be there for his son, was not to be.
“Absolutely not,” Trimble said. “J.P., you need to take this flight back and you’re going to have to go in there and step up to the plate and express this to your coach. You owe that to him.”
For Williams, the idea didn’t come out of left field so much as it came out of another ballpark in another time zone. The head coach of 27 years has seen his share of early departures, but here was a player giving up an honest shot at a national title for what almost certainly promised to be an unkind draft.
“I did tell him I didn’t think it was the smartest decision,” Williams said. “But he felt strongly that that’s what he wanted to do, so I told him I would support him.”
Williams never thought of fighting the decision. He accepts that for most of his elite players, college isn’t the final destination—just a stop along the way.
“It is a tough balance,” Williams said. “Kids come to school with that dream, whether it’s Harrison Barnes or J.P. Tokoto, you want to do everything you can for North Carolina, for your team. But you have a big dream in the back of your mind that sometimes gets bigger and bigger and gets in the front of your mind.”
Tokoto loved his time in Chapel Hill—he’s adamant about that—but he believed the program had done everything it could to prepare him for his dream. What remained was up to him.
In his junior season, Tokoto averaged 8.3 points per contest and his 4.3 assists per game ratio was second only to point guard Marcus Paige. For the 6'6" guard with a 40-inch maximum vertical, gravity-defying dunks and white-on-rice defense were omnipresent, but weaknesses were just as apparent. Tokoto hit a slim 31% of his two-point jumpers and took only 32 three-pointers in his junior season. Throughout his career, he stumbled over free throws more often than reporters stumbled over pronouncing his name (TOE-kuh-toe).
When Tokoto said goodbye to his coach of the last three years, he had one promise that eased Williams’s mind: though he would never wear the Carolina Blue jersey again, he would get a Carolina diploma. “I am going to finish up my degree,” he said. Three years of summer training camps had come with three years of summer school, leaving Tokoto with only one semester’s worth of classes between him and a degree in Exercise and Sports Science.
But for now, he had bigger plans.
The day after he publicly announced his decision, Tokoto boarded another plane—this one bound for Florida—to address those basketball shortcomings. IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., was a basketball nirvana. There, Tokoto wouldn’t have to juggle his time between academics and athletics. There, he could rise to his father’s challenge and prepare more effectively. There, he could start fresh.
“In college, as a parent, I don’t feel J.P. had completely locked in to dedicate and be prepared for his full potential,” Trimble said. “And that’s on him. I don’t put that on the program, I put that on him.”
It’s difficult to distinguish which was the chicken or the egg. In college, Tokoto was rarely asked to be anything more than a role player, so he never became anything more.
On Feb. 18, Tokoto missed a potential game-tying jumper with eight seconds left in a 92–90 overtime loss against Duke. Afterwards, Williams told reporters that shot wasn’t the first, second or third option the team had drawn up.
For the past two years, the first option for UNC has been Paige, whose relationship with Tokoto extends further back than their first practice together in the Dean Dome. The highly-heralded Tokoto was one of the first commits to UNC in the 2012 class, and when he heard his new coach was in need of a floor general, he recommended Paige—a scrappy little point guard from Marion, Iowa—whom he had faced in regional tournaments.
Two years later, that guard was the star of the Tar Heels and Tokoto his sidekick.
“J.P. was the fifth option on North Carolina,” Trimble said. “Did that sit well with him? Probably not. What competitor would want to be the fifth option when in high school you were the first option? That’s a transition. And I think that’s a transition that he never completely came to peace with. You question whether you belong. You question, ‘Do they need me?’”
Tokoto never harbored any animosity toward his teammates. Leaving them was the hardest part of this process. But he realized that playing second, or even fifth, fiddle for yet another year would get him no closer to an NBA roster. He was a role player for UNC, and that’s all the team would want from him as a senior.
“There’s nothing against North Carolina,” he said. “I loved playing for Coach Roy Williams. But as far as improving my game and investing in myself, investing in my stock for the NBA with these scouts, offensively, nothing was going to change for me.”
That’s what IMG was for.
For a month, Tokoto lived in the NBA-regulation gym in Bradenton, stretching and working out in the mornings, training on the court twice a day and scrimmaging with the likes of Rodney Hood (Jazz), Maurice Harkless (Magic), and fellow 2015 prospect Cameron Payne at night. He overhauled his jumper and packed on 14 pounds, peaking at 208.
Three weeks after arriving in Florida, Tokoto trekked to Chicago, having earned an invite to the NBA draft combine. The past month had been rehearsal after rehearsal. May 14 was opening night.
That day, on the third possession of the first five-on-five scrimmage, Tokoto stretched his 6'10" wingspan to its limit, tipped a pass near half-court, chased down the ball and slammed it. He went 6-for-6 on the day, including a three-pointer, five rebounds, three steals, and two assists. As he walked off the court, he couldn’t suppress a smile.
Neither could Trevor or Laurence, who were watching from home.
“The combine was crucial for J.P. to display something that maybe he hadn’t had a chance to display at Carolina,” Trimble said. “We talked about preparation. I knew he had really worked hard to prepare. To see it show up?”
The next day, Tokoto went 5-for-6 from the field and snagged seven boards. Within days, new mock drafts appeared, and with them, occasional projections for Tokoto to go in the first round.
“To be honest, I was happy,” he said. “I was excited for myself. I knew what I had to do going in and I did it. I took care of business. But at the same time, that was just a small step for me. There’s a long road ahead.”
That road looked daunting at first—17 team workouts in 17 cities in 30 days—but on the tail end of the journey, Tokoto was still soaking up every second of the process with a smile on his face.
On Saturday, June 13, for the first time since Easter weekend, Tokoto went home to Menomonee Falls. He had three days’ respite between workouts, but basketball still managed to sneak its way into his life. Sunday night, he sat with his family to watch Game 5 of the NBA Finals, when, midway through the first half, it hit him.
“I’m watching Harrison Barnes play and he played at UNC, and I see my teammate of two years James Michael McAdoo on the bench standing up clapping,” Tokoto said of the Golden State teammates. “I look at them and I’m going to be in their position soon. Hopefully.”
Last year, McAdoo left after his junior season at North Carolina and went undrafted. He was just two years removed from being a projected lottery pick as a freshman. It was a cruel lesson in the damage waiting can do.
On Feb. 19, after months of McAdoo pinballing between 10-day contracts with Golden State and stints with the Santa Cruz Warriors of the D-League, Golden State signed McAdoo for the rest of the season. This contract included the occasional trip back to Santa Cruz, where the forward helped guide his team to a D-League title and landed himself on the All-Rookie NBA D-League first team and the All-NBA D-League second team. In June, he added one more line to his resume: NBA champion.
Tokoto held tight to McAdoo’s story as motivation—a reminder that even if the draft doesn’t go as planned, all is not lost. But the truth is, even he doesn’t know what story the next month holds. He surprised nearly everyone by declaring for the draft. He surprised nearly everyone by his performance in the combine. Now, more surprises lie in wait.
“You see the draft boards, you see all these predictions, but they don’t know what teams are thinking, they don’t know how these workouts are going or what teams see with guys,” he said. “You don’t really know what’s really going to happen, and that is kind of nerve-wracking going into the draft. ‘Is my name going to be called or what?’”
Only June 25, draft night, holds that answer. This time, Trimble will fly out to be with his son. The whole family just bought tickets to New York City last week. But before they did, Trimble called Tokoto. The father had one last piece of advice.
“Son, you’re preparing for something that a lot of people dream about,” he said. “Most of us only dream about it. But you’re taking a step to get there. If that doesn’t excite you, this is probably not the sport for you.”
There’s been a lot of uncertainty for J.P. Tokoto in the past two months, and somehow, the next two weeks hold even more. But of that?
He’s never been more sure.