CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina had a lot of freshmen last year, and not all freshmen progress at the same rate. Two in particular, Joel James and J.P. Tokoto, enjoyed solid starts to their college basketball careers, only to lose confidence and then see their roles diminish as the season went along.
That can be tough to handle for a young player, but both of them are resolved to make sure this year is different.
James started a few games at center for the Tar Heels until that no longer became a viable option. In fact, it no longer became a viable option for any of UNC’s young centers to start and the Tar Heels were forced to go with a small lineup. That’s not going to be an option this year. Or, at least, it would seem that’s not going to be.
James Michael McAdoo, who played center in the smaller lineup, didn’t forgo the NBA Draft to come back and play out of position again. The Tar Heels do not feature the same wing depth they did a year ago, either.
And while the small lineup created mismatches for opponents last year, it created mismatches for UNC as well.
“At that time, the small lineup was what worked for us. It helped us win a lot of games,” James said. “But eventually, if you’ve seen this year’s schedule, we play some big teams, some big people. I don’t think that small lineup can guard some people that size. Something’s got to give. Either I’ve got to get better or the inside will get smacked around, so I don’t know.”
James has only been playing basketball a few years, so a lot of players he’s facing off against have an experience advantage. But he is 6-foot-10, 260 pounds and built like a wall of muscle. That’s impossible to teach.
But at times, his inexperience showed and he seemed wooden and awkward on the court. It got to the point where James was playing just a few minutes per game after starting the season opener.
“You’re always hard on yourself, particularly myself,” James said. “I’m extremely — I feel like I was frustrated. Just a lot of anger, a lot of frustration upon myself, knowing I could have done a lot more.”
The loquacious James has been told by everyone from his own teammates to former Tar Heel and NBA great Rasheed Wallace that he has the physical tools to be an NBA superstar. Last year, when he occasionally felt the need to go play pick-up against regular students just to regain some confidence, he was far from being that superstar. But if he can hone his skills during his time in Chapel Hill, it might not be that far-fetched.
With all the positive affirmation he’s been getting, he wants to build confidence through hard work.
“Did you ever hear the saying, ‘Confidence is like deodorant, if you don’t have it on, you stink?’ That’s what it is,” James said. “You get more confidence the amount of time you put in the gym. It relates to, OK, if I spend 12 hours a day shooting a jump shot, I know in a game I’m going to knock this jump shot down because I shot so many of them. So confidence comes with the amount of work you put in.”
Tokoto’s situation was completely different. He came to UNC perhaps better known for his dunking ability than anything else, but the 6-foot-6 athlete was just one of many wings on the Tar Heel roster. He carved out a role for himself early, but midway through ACC play, junior Leslie McDonald came back from an injury and took most of his minutes.
“That kind of hurt me a little bit, not knowing what was really going on. I understand that (coach Roy Williams), he’s very loyal to his upperclassmen. … I didn’t realize that at the time. It didn’t register to me,” Tokoto said. “I thought I did something wrong. So here I am in practice, thinking, ‘Man, what did I do wrong? Let me not try to do it.’
“So a lot of it throughout the season was the mental part that kind of held me back.”
Tokoto and assistant coach Hubert Davis are working tirelessly on the things Tokoto needs to improve: ball-handling and shooting. He’s working on that every day, tweaking a few things mechanically (like a chicken-wing elbow he developed last year on his jump shot).
“Even when I was playing bad, (Williams) would still put me in there just because of my athleticism. I could rebound. I was getting after it on defense. I could still see the floor well even though I’m not shooting well,” Tokoto said. “Even if the shot’s not falling one night, I’m still in there helping my team out, affecting the other team on the defensive end or getting an offense rebound and putting it back in or something, just contributing.”
But he’ll need to get better in a hurry.
Next year, North Carolina will feature, at most, three wing players in McDonald, Tokoto and top scorer P.J. Hairston.
“(Williams) has definitely told me that my role is going to be a lot bigger than it was last year, which is a great thing and kind of nerve-wracking at the same time,” Tokoto said. “I know I’ve got to work hard. I know there’s a lot of expectations, both from the coaching staff, the team, fans, even my parents, my family members, everybody is expecting a lot. I’m not one to disappoint.”