UNC's Tokoto can wow on defense, too

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- When you’re a freshman, you’re bound to make mistakes. It’s how you make up for them that matters.

And sometimes wows.

Take, for instance, the case of North Carolina wing J.P. Tokoto.

After throwing the ball away in the backcourt with just under 8 minutes left in Saturday’s first half, the freshman responded by sliding his feet, stretching his arms -- and halting the ensuing 3-on-1 fast break by hustling, leaping and blocking 6-foot-8 East Carolina forward Maurice Kemp at the rim.

It wasn’t necessarily the most important play in a game in which UNC allowed the Pirates to rally to within four points in the final minute before surviving. But the versatile wing also finished with 10 points, five rebounds, an assist, that block (and just that one turnover) in 10 minutes.

And it gave fans yet another idea of what Tokoto can develop into, once the initial miscues stop happening.

“I’ve been saying since he came to Carolina that he’s top 3 on this team [in] top defenders," junior Reggie Bullock said. “He’s very athletic, he’s real low with his hands -- you can’t really swing the ball through low [against him]. His hands are real strong, so he swipes at the ball, which is why his hands are always taped, because he’s always getting hurt or hit because his hands are so low.

“He can guard a 4, he can guard a 3, he can guard a 2 or a 1, and that helps, too.”

Indeed, with UNC opting to go smaller for more stretches, the 6-foot-5 Tokoto has found himself (along with sophomore P.J. Hairston) playing the "4" in a four-guard line-up more often, and with good results. Tokoto's outside shot remains a work in progress, but his athleticism allows him (along with his wowing dunks) to guard bigger players and be an aggressive factor on the boards. For example: while no UNC post player recorded an offensive rebound Saturday (a stat that made coach Roy Williams extremely disgruntled), Tokoto grabbed two.

“It appeals to me, definitely," Tokoto said. “Coach likes to use me or P.J. when we go small, so if the big guys aren’t getting it done, we come in and get it done -- it works like that. If the big guys are performing, then they don’t need us at the 4, then we’ll play at the 3 or 2. Whatever coach needs, we’re happy with.”

Tokoto, who is now averaging 4.6 points, 2.7 rebounds and 10 minutes for the season, said as he’s grown more and more comfortable with the team and system, he’s grown more and more confident in his role(s). He knows mistakes might continue to happen, but learning from them -- and making up for them quickly -- is key.

“I made a bad play," he said of the turnover that led to the 3-on-1 block. “I passed it out to Leslie [McDonald] at halfcourt, I didn’t see the guy. I made it my obligation to get the ball back, so I made a good play. Coach was happy about that.”