North Carolina small forward J.P. Tokoto has distinguished himself as one of the best dunkers in college basketball. His midair acrobatics have not only electrified Carolina's faithful, they have also triggered many a Tar Heel run.
The Menomonee Falls, Wi., native went from being a seldom-used role player as a freshman to a solid starter as a sophomore.
This past season, Tokoto averaged 9.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. He led the team in steals (55), was second in assists (103) and tied for second in defensive rebounding (132).
And yet, Tokoto's starting position is not guaranteed for the 2014-15 season. UNC coach Roy Williams continues to bring top-level talent to Chapel Hill. In this year's recruiting class, Williams reeled in a pair of McDonald's All-American small forwards: Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson.
Both of these young wings have been impressive in the high school All-Star Games. Jackson was named co-MVP in the Mickey D's game in Chicago.
Recently, I predicted that Jackson would come in and win the starting SF position. That will happen if Tokoto does not stay on his path of improvement.
To make sure that he stays on the court at the beginning of Carolina's games next season, Tokoto must continue to sharpen his skills and take his game to another level.
Here are three crucial areas that, if he makes the necessary improvements, will help him keep his starting job:
Tokoto's 2013-14 field-goal shooting percentage (48.9 percent) is deceptive. Most of his attempts came from point-blank range or on vicious slam dunks.
When it comes to knocking down shots from outside, he struggles. As a freshman, he hit 1-of-11 (nine percent) from beyond the arc. Even though he improved his three-point shooting this past season, he still only connected on 22 percent of his bombs.
He is also a mediocre free-throw shooter, making only half of his freebies during his sophomore campaign.
Because of his shooting struggles, Williams has to decide at the end of games whether to sub him out or keep him on the floor.
At this point, both Jackson and Pinson are better shooters than Tokoto. They have excellent mid-range games and Jackson can knock down threes.
To stay on the court as a junior, Tokoto does not need to turn into an outside-shooting marksman. He does not even need to be a renowned shooter.
He simply needs to be an average threat from beyond the arc and consistent at the line.
If you are a faithful Tar Heel fan, you already know that Tokoto is a tough defender. In fact, he was selected to the 2014 All-ACC Defensive Team. This was a well-deserved acknowledgement from the league's coaches and media.
But Tokoto needs to further distinguish himself as the undisputed defensive leader for next year's young team. He has the tools to become the top defender in the conference and maybe one of the best in the nation.
This UNC team will have plenty of offensive firepower and no shortage of scorers. What they need is someone to step forward and set the tone on the other end of the court. They need someone to lead by example and be an every-possession defender who does more than poach the passing lanes.
This is where Tokoto can really excel. He can guard all the perimeter positions. He was fifth in the ACC in steals. He is tough on the defensive glass.
Tokoto can contribute in many areas for the Heels next year. The place where he can stand out the most and secure his starting position is by consistently locking up their opponents' top wings.
Every great team needs a player (or two) who earns the respect of his teammates by who he is and what he does.
This player does not need to be the top scorer, but he does need to be someone who leads by example and constantly challenges others to work hard and bring their best.
North Carolina has been missing this type of leadership over the past several seasons. The last players who legitimately filled this type of role were Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough, who, not so coincidentally, led UNC to win the 2009 NCAA Championship.
The 2014-15 Tar Heels need a leader to emerge. They need someone to step up now and during the offseason. By the time preseason workouts begin this fall, that person already needs to be impacting this team.
While Marcus Paige immediately comes to mind, Tokoto could be another key upperclassman who can keep this team on track.
Competition for every starting position (other than wherever Williams wants Paige to play) will help this team reach its potential and get ready for what could be a remarkable season.
With Williams' tendency to prefer his juniors and seniors, Tokoto has an edge in returning to the Tar Heels' starting lineup.
But his role on next year's UNC team will be determined by what he does between now and mid-October when official practices start.
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