The North Carolina Tar Heels have been full of surprises this season—both positive and negative. But one good surprise many fail to acknowledge is the impact P.J. Hairston's replacement has made.
By no means is J.P. Tokoto the offensive powerhouse Hairston was expected to be. He certainly doesn't have the shooting ability Hairston displayed last season as a sophomore beyond the arc or at the stripe. Perhaps it is because of these things that so much of Tokoto's game has been overlooked by many UNC fans.
Or maybe it's just that he isn't as complete as many people expect a sophomore Tar Heel to be.
The impact Tokoto has had on this squad goes far beyond his pedestrian 30.8 percent shooting from three or his 47.9 percent shooting from the free-throw line. It's everything else he does that has made this team competitive without Hairston—and for nine games without Leslie McDonald.
Tokoto is a superior athlete to just about anyone who steps on the hardwood with the sophomore small forward. He dominates the boards for his position by leaping over opponents or flying through the lane with a timely putback jam.
He's fourth on the team—behind three post players—with 5.8 rebounds per game and second on the team with 31 offensive rebounds. Over the last four contests, he's averaging 8.3 rebounds.
That's just the beginning. Defense has also been one of the high points of Tokoto's game.
Tokoto has become one of the deadliest shot-blockers on the squad in that four-game span with nine. He's averaging 0.9 blocks per game on the season and is third on the team with a grand total of 13.
When he stays grounded, he still causes headaches for the opposition with his steals. He's fourth on the team with an average of 1.4 per game and is a constant threat to take it coast-to-coast for a slam. He isn't beyond making defensive errors, but his quickness and length pose a serious threat to anyone he is glued to.
His much-maligned passing is also far better than most folks are willing to give him credit for. Yes, he is prone to turnovers with his gunslinger mentality. He has a tendency to think he can fit the ball in the smallest of windows, which has played a big part in his 2.1 turnovers per game.
But he is very accurate and extremely talented when it comes to dishing the rock. Few small forwards in the game today have his vision and awareness. Only point guards Marcus Paige and Nate Britt have handed out more assists than Tokoto this season for the Tar Heels.
Though he may not be a great shooter at this point in his young collegiate career, he still finds a way to score with his high activity. He's currently fifth on the team with 10.3 points per game, and that has a lot to do with Tokoto being one of the most relentless, active players on the entire roster.
And he occasionally shows glimpses of what he will be capable of in the future with plays like this:
I'm not sure if the correct terminology when referring to people's perspectives of J.P. Tokoto should be "underrated" or "underappreciated."
Yes, the youngster still has a lot of growing to do as a basketball player. But if you can pull aside the veil of negativity, you'll see his constant development throughout this season.
Maybe someday he'll be the Vince Carter so many hoped he would be when they saw his high-flying highlight reels from his prep days. Maybe he won't.
For now, J.P. Tokoto deserves a lot more credit than most are willing to give him. The Tar Heels wouldn't have their heads above water without their most underrated player.
Tokoto is the Tar Heels' secret weapon few saw coming and many have failed to notice.