Tokoto's humility, hard work earn him NOW Player of the Year
Sophomore ready to take on leadership role with Falls
Menomonee Falls — To fully appreciate how well adjusted the highly-coveted NOW Newspapers Player of the Year J.P. Tokoto of Menomonee Falls is, consider how little he thinks about all the attention he gets from major Division I college coaches nationwide.
"That's just sort of background noise right now," the sophomore said, a couple of weeks after leading the Indians to their most successful season in 17 years. "Right now, it's more about the team than anything else now.
"The way things are looking, all I want to do right now is make myself and the team better right now," he said, referencing his rebounding, his mid-range jumper, his ball handling and his defensive footwork.
Sounds like a man ready to accept more of a leadership role than a top-five nationally ranked player ready to accept more accolades.
And that very thought will probably cause many deflated sighs in gyms ranging from Racine to Superior, because Tokoto is already plenty good and plenty mature.
He's good enough to sell out gyms all throughout the greater Milwaukee area with his ESPN-worthy dunks, his deft passes, his come-out-of-nowhere blocks.
"I do think about being the crowd-pleaser sometimes," he laughs, noting that literally dozens of relatives crowded a section at every Falls home game this winter to see a little bit of that.
And the fact that all he wants to do is simply get better is both refreshing and alarming to friend and foe alike.
"All he wants to do is play," said Indians coach Ben Siebert. "Really, this season was not all that difficult (with all the coaches visits). The kid stayed grounded and focused. We just don't talk about it all that much. He loves that people are showing up to the games. He's flattered that it creates such a great atmosphere."
After all, he's still just a very tall, skinny kid without a cell phone, who greets everyone who reaches out to him in the hallways at Falls with a friendly "Wha's up?"
"I just try to be a real social guy," he said.
That sense of ease extends to the fact that he more than anyone else knows that he was not a one-man band this winter in leading the Indians to this record-setting 21-win year, which ended painfully one game short of the Holy Grail of state.
"That locker room afterward (at the McGuire Center) was so difficult, so sad," he said in reflection. "All those seniors (six of them) we had. Their last game. To come so close and not get it done was so hard."
Because, for the most part, no one wanted this season to end, is something of a revelation these days. Tokoto, the talent, melded easily with the six seniors that were the leadership and the core of the team.
"We were very tight," he said, "because it was a lot of the same group as last year. It was very cool. It clicked sort of automatically. I sat back and played and let the captains run the team.
"And they didn't get all uptight about all the attention. They knew what kind of player I was. They knew that the pressure (to succeed) was on all of us, not just me. It was a team, not just one person. Five people working hard all at one time."
Mature beyond his years
In hearing that, you get a sense of an evolution starting from just being a superior talent to something maybe quite a bit more substantial.
"What I really see in him is a maturity," said Germantown coach Steve Showalter, whose team lost twice to the Tokoto-led Indians this season. "It can't be easy having every person in a crowd of 2,000 watching every move you make. I remember watching him at a game at Tosa East last year when he was just a freshman and those crowds over there can be pretty loud.
"They were just all over him and it was like only his second or third high school game, and he handled it just like a man, which was amazing because it really can't be easy having every team out there except the one you're on wanting you to fail.
"And the better he gets, the more people will want to knock him down."
Already this season you could see that happening, as teams got more physical with Tokoto, trying all things legal (and maybe a little illegal) to bring him down to their level. You saw flashes of irritation in him, but never outright anger.
He took that level-headed attitude to another level after that crushing, last-second sectional loss to Arrowhead, as the maturity Showalter spoke about was again on display. He was near the front of the handshake line, his face full of disappointment, but still he gave everyone on the Warhawks side a clasped hand with a respectful and simple chest-bump as the finish.
"He's already starting to do some of those things (that leaders do)," said Siebert.
Like working with the other two experienced returnees, junior guard Jalen Ramey and sophomore guard C.J. Malone, to make sure that the team is organized and ready come the start of winter practice next November because with the loss of those seniors, a lot of work has to be done if the Indians want to contend for conference and state honors again.
"We'll bring a lot of the other people in (varsity reserve and junior varsity) and try and hit the gym a lot this summer," he said. "There are a lot of people we can call on yet. It'll be alright. We'll be a lot shorter (laughs), but skill-wise we'll be fine."
Spoken like a true, well-adjusted leader.
AT A GLANCE
J.P. Tokoto: A maturing star earns All-Suburban POY honors; named to second NOW team
SECOND FALLS NOW POY: First to earn honor since Brad Christianson (both 1992 and 1993)
NUMBERS: 464 points (18.6 points per game) and 10 rebounds per game
TOTAL CAREER POINTS: 742 points (11th all-time in school history, sandwiched between Falls Hall of Famers Rob Wendlick at 731 and Terry Schmidt at 746)
TEAM WINS IN HIS CAREER: 36 (tied for school record for most wins in any two year span, 1958-60)
OTHER HONORS: Division 1 first-team All-State by the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association and second-team overall All-State by the Associated Press
Best Moment This Season: The long and loud celebration following the conference-tile clinching win over Tosa East in February.
MOST DELICATE MOMENT: When both Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan and North Carolina coach Roy Williams showed up at the same game. "That was a little interesting," Tokoto laughed. The two sat side-by-side all evening. Tokoto will likely make his college choice next year.
QUOTE: "For the sake of what's right in the world I hope he doesn't lose that quality he has of being a good person … because his physical skills are all there and in Wisconsin that's rare. … It'll be interesting to see what he can do with what he's got. If he puts it all together and gets anywhere near his potential, he can be one of the best. I hope it happens."
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