Will J.P. Tokoto Be An Effective NBA Player?
The 2015 NBA Draft takes place on Thursday, and only one Tar Heel stands alone in this year’s field of rising NBA stars: J.P. Tokoto.
Tokoto’s decision to leave the Tar Heels was puzzling at first, but, as fellow Tar Heel Daniel Wilco wrote in an excellent column for Sports Illustrated, it was what he felt was best for his future.
What we know about Tokoto is that he might have the best leaping ability in basketball today, he is capable of locking down as a defender, and his stats greatly improved after a forgettable freshman year at North Carolina:
- 2012-13: 2.6 PPG, 48.8% FG, 0.7 APG, 1.7 RPG, 0.9 TOPG, 0.5 SPG, 8.6 MPG
- 2013-14: 9.3 PPG, 48.9% FG, 3.1 APG, 5.8 RPG, 1.9 TOPG, 1.6 SPG, 28.7 MPG
- 2014-15: 8.3 PPG, 42.8% FG, 4.3 APG, 5.6 RPG, 2.2 TOPG, 1.5 SPG, 29.1 MPG
Tokoto never averaged double-digit scoring in his college career, but as his time with the Tar Heels progressed he became far better at finding his teammates for scores. Tokoto also contributed consistent rebounding and stealing to the team in his last two seasons.
It’s safe to say that Tokoto’s biggest question mark is putting the ball in the basket. Tokoto’s jumper was streaky at best at North Carolina. He never posed a threat from outside, shooting a career 26.6% from deep. He also struggled from the free-throw line, hitting just 54.4% of his attempts from the charity stripe. I’m pretty sure 75% of those misses came in the Belmont game and OH MY GOD ALL YOU HAD TO DO WAS MAKE A FEW FREE THROWS AND THAT NIGHTMARE WOULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED.
The good news for Tokoto is that shooting is teachable (see: Mark Price and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist), and his raw athleticism is not. He can develop a better jump-shot with the right coaching, whereas the kind of bounce he possesses isn’t something one can acquire with practice.
As great as Tokoto is at leaping, he still hasn’t jumped far up in the latest round of mock drafts, being projected as a second-round pick:
- DraftExpress: 41st pick, Brooklyn Nets
- Sam Vecenie (CBS Sports): 47th pick, Philadelphia 76ers
- Gary Parrish (CBS Sports): 46th pick, Milwaukee Bucks
- Zach Harper (CBS Sports): 37th pick, Philadelphia 76ers
- Chad Ford (ESPN): 59th pick, Atlanta Hawks
- NBADraft.net: 46th pick, Milwaukee Bucks
- Scott Howard-Cooper (NBA): 45th pick, Boston Celtics
Let’s go ahead and all say a quick prayer for J.P. that he avoids the Sixers at all costs.
With the exception of Philadelphia, each of these teams would present an intriguing destination for Tokoto, because while they’re all in the horrible, awful, no-good very-bad Eastern Conference, he could possibly find playing time and gain postseason experience in his first year.
In Brooklyn, Tokoto could climb his way to third or even second on the small forward depth chart with a good summer and solid garbage time minutes. While Joe Johnson has the starting spot locked down, take a look at his back-ups at small forward:
- Alan “Alliteration Annihilator” Anderson (7.9 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 1.2 APG)
- Earl Clark (4.4 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 0.5 APG)
- Sergey Karasev (3.5 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 0.9 APG)
Not necessarily an elite crop of talent, and certainly not a group that Tokoto couldn’t compete with. It wouldn’t be immediate, but Tokoto would have a chance of grabbing one of the last spots in the Brooklyn rotation.
The Milwaukee Bucks are one of the more intriguing teams entering the 2015-16 season, and unfortunately for Tokoto, there’s not a lot of room for him at small forward. Should Tokoto embrace the Dexter Strickland role (shooting guard who can’t shoot), he could move up to the 2, where he would play behind Khris Middleton and O.J. Mayo.
Why would the Bucks be an intriguing landing spot for J.P.? For one, he’d be united with another former Tar Heel in John Henson, and literally every 2015 NBA Championship team had multiple Tar Heels on it (REMINDER: James Michael McAdoo has never lost a playoff series). He’d also get to play on the same team as Giannis Antetokounmpo, which is fun for two reasons:
- Tokoto would get to learn from another young, freakishly athletic small forward and follow his path of development in the NBA.
- You can rearrange the letters in “Antetokounmpo” to spell “Tokoto Pun Man,” so maybe the duo can go into stand-up together. They could play one-on-Jean at practice and then appierre at comedy clubs together in the offseason, to be hiannist.
The Bucks will likely return to the NBA Playoffs in 2016, which would give Tokoto valuable postseason experience, even if he never takes off his warm-ups. That kind of experience for a rookie will do wonders for shaking off any nerves as his NBA career progresses and he looks to obtain a larger role on a professional team.
The Atlanta Hawks finished first place in the Eastern Conference last season, and will be one of the teams to beat (or one of the teams to not lose to?) in the conference next year. The Hawks have the starting and back-up small forward roles cemented in DeMarre Carroll and Thabo Sefolosha, but Tokoto could steal that third spot from Austin Daye to get the occasional minute of playing time. Much like with the Bucks, the Hawks would provide great postseason experience for Tokoto, and he would benefit from playing from the 2015 Coach of the Year in Mike Budenholzer.
Finally, Tokoto could play for the
basketball team that represents the worst sports city in America Boston Celtics. The Celtics are deep at small forward, with four options at the position in total. Should Tokoto go to Boston, he would play with one of the better groups of young talent in the NBA: Marcus Smart, Isaiah Thomas, James Young, Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller make up a strong core group of talent drafted within the past 5 seasons. Combine that with the coaching of Brad “Should’ve Beat Duke” Stevens, and that’s a good unit to come into the league and play with.
No matter what team Tokoto lands on, he has no guarantees as far as playing time or even roster spots go. He knew the risk he was taking when he declared for the NBA Draft, and on Thursday, he will find out where he will begin to attempt reap the reward.
At worst, Tokoto could end up in the D-League before the season starts. He’s too talented to have to go overseas, but if his shot doesn’t improve, he could fall through the cracks of the NBA.
At best, Tokoto could very well have a similar story to Danny Green. He’s not going to be a star immediately, but with work (again, specifically on his shot), he could be a do-it-all role player for a playoff team. He might have to jump around (no pun intended) from team-to-team to find his niche, but with the right coaching, Tokoto has shown that he is capable of making significant off-season leaps. His improvement between his freshman and sophomore seasons stands out as one of the more remarkable leaps in recent North Carolina history, and his improved passing game has allowed him to find a way to hide his streaky shooting.
My prediction is that Tokoto finds his way to a postseason contender, adds valuable minutes off the bench, and steals the show at the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest within the next five years (Charlotte 2017, anybody?). He’s not the player you build an entire team around, but he’s the kind of piece that can make a team better just by performing adequately when the stars rest. It won’t be an immediate success, but Tokoto is a smart long-term investment, as long as his team fully invests in his development.
Or, at the very least, he can still do this to innocent bystanders:
Digital painting by @LongLeafCreative. Photos courtesy of Wagertalk.com and Elliott Rubin. Stats courtesy of Sports-Reference. Mock Drafts taken from DraftExpress, CBS Sports, ESPN, NBA and NBADraft.net. Potential rosters taken from ESPN. Video courtesy of Primetime Media & Entertainment.