UNC-bound Tokoto is a level-headed star

UNC-bound Tokoto is a level-headed star

Published Jan. 20, 2012 4:00 a.m. ET

He is a superstar and a role model. And he's still in high school. But being in the limelight is nothing new for Menomonee Falls senior J.P. Tokoto. He's been making headlines since the seventh grade, when he started doing big things on the basketball court for his AAU team.

And, beginning with his freshman season, there were always some very special guests stopping by the Falls gym on game nights -- people like Roy Williams and Bo Ryan, who, with each soaring slam-dunk, salivated at the thought of Tokoto wearing Carolina Blue or Badger Red. That's a lot to handle for a kid who's not old enough to drive.

"It was great," Tokoto said. "A lot of people see it as pressure. I see it as an opportunity. It's a great opportunity for anybody."

"When I was playing, I knew they were there. When you're playing, you can't think about that at all. It's going to mess your whole game up, mess up my teammates. I just kind of let that go."

Last March, with an American Idol-like air of suspense, Tokoto announced he would attend North Carolina. With "The Decision" out of the way, (he had been heavily recruited by Wisconsin, Marquette, Duke, Kentucky, Connecticut and Kansas among many others) he could concentrate on school and just playing the game.

"It's definitely easier now. When I got it over with, a lot of weight came off my shoulders. I could focus on academics and my team, as well."

Tokoto has attracted a lot of attention from college coaches, the media and fans of Menomonee Falls and its opponents. After a recent game at Plymouth, Tokoto spent several minutes signing autographs for people who had rooted for the other side during the game.

"He always knows that there are a lot of eyes watching us, so he's a role model," said first-year Falls head coach Dan Leffel. "That's something I've tried to stress: you never know who's watching, and who might get disappointed at something you do or who's going to get a kick out of something you do that's positive."

Tokoto also understands how every team that he goes up against will be looking to knock off the kid headed for Chapel Hill.

"We know that anytime we play anyone home or away," said Tokoto, "we're going to get the best of them. We've got to bring it every night. We know we've got a target on our backs."

Tokoto has been lauded as a future star since he was 12. But he never gives anyone "the star treatment."

"He treats everyone at school just the same," Leffel said. "He is really grounded."

"My parents, coaches and teammates all keep me humble," Tokoto said. "My teammates have handled all the attention I've gotten very well. We toss around jokes with each other and stuff."

At 6-foot-6 with outstanding quickness and leaping ability, Tokoto has already been compared favorably to another UNC alum, Vince Carter, by rabid Tar Heel fans who can't wait to see what J.P. can do in the ACC. Tokoto would like to lead the Falls, who have been around .500 all season, on a late charge into the postseason.

But he can't help but ponder what lies ahead.

"I think about it every day, every time I step on the court. I think this is the 'Dean Dome' (The Dean E. Smith Center, where North Carolina plays its home games). I'll be out there with four of the best players in the country. I just can't wait to get down there and work hard."

"He's a great fit for the athleticism that coach Roy Williams does," Leffel said. "They run a lot, so he's going to be able to get out on the wing and do a lot of good things in the full court."

Leffel says he's being "nitpicky" when he says Tokoto could have a stronger dribble in traffic and occasionally shoots "too many threes" and should attack the basket more frequently.

"He's definitely very talented, but like everybody else, he has to improve," the coach noted.

And Leffel believes that someday soon, he may be able to claim that he once coached an NBA player.

"He definitely has that kind of ability," said said. "He has the work ethic.

"He has the drive to become as great a player as he can be."

Leffel's son, who is in the second grade, counts a photo of he and Tokoto among his prized possessions. "He told me, 'Maybe one day he'll play for the Bucks, Daddy.'"

Tokoto, also a star in the classroom is already thinking about life after he leaves the hardwood. He is considering taking on a business major at UNC and studying foreign languages including Mandarin, eyeing some potential entrepreneur opportunities in Asia.

"Business over in China is blowing up," said Tokoto, displaying a worldview well beyond his years and atypical for a blue-chip recruit. "I feel like that would be a smart thing to do. You're not going to be playing basketball for the rest of your life."

But before he brokers big deals in Beijing and shakes David Stern's hand on draft night, Tokoto wants to be a high school senior.

"This is a big family, so I'm going to miss 'em when it's over," he said. "I'm going to enjoy it while I can."