North Carolina Tar Heels junior J.P. Tokoto, whose effortless athleticism in the open court has often drawn comparisons to Vince Carter, eyed freshman Joel Berry, the only defender separating him from the rim on a fast break.
It was just a meaningless basket in a long line of summer pickup games, but Tokoto has been known to embarrass defenders, thanks to his hang time. Berry was well aware of this when he went up to contest the shot.
“I’m thinking, ‘This little freshman, I’m just going to finish over the top,' " Tokoto said. “The next thing I know, I’m catching like a forearm to my chest and he’s up in the air with me.”
Berry served notice. A new breed has arrived in Chapel Hill. They're not backing down, even during an insignificant pickup game.
“It was just a shock,” said Tokoto, who used his status as an upperclassman to call a foul, even though he admitted it probably wasn’t one.
It’s kind of hard to build a reputation for being tough as a team with all those All-Americans wearing baby blue. The Tar Heels have long been perceived as leaning toward finesse well before Roy Williams' tenure began. But Carolina’s freshman class of Berry, Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson could alter that this season.
The trio arrived on campus with the kind of hunger -- better yet, heart -- that has been missing in Chapel Hill for some time.
When’s the last time a Carolina team was defined by its toughness? The 2009 national championship team? Maybe, but more often than not, the teams were defined by players who played like a bunch of nice guys who didn't have a lot of fight.
Junior guard Marcus Paige doesn't believe lack of fight will be a problem this season. He likes what he sees from the freshmen so far.
“The thing I like about them most is they all have a real tough competitive edge, you can even tell in pickup games and in drills -- especially Joel,” Paige said. “He’s such a fiery competitor, and having that on the team is going to help. Because not everyone has it, let’s be honest. Everyone wants to win, but not everyone is super-fiery and competitive and I think all three of them have that and to go with their talent, it’s going to push our team to make it better.”
It all starts with position battles. Williams could very well use a starting lineup of all returnees with Nate Britt at point guard, Paige at shooting guard, and round it out with Tokoto, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks.
But Berry will push Britt for playing time, giving Williams the option to use Paige, who led the team in scoring last season, off the ball.
Pinson, at 6-foot-6, and Jackson, at 6-8, could make a strong case to leave Paige at point guard and make Williams think about starting a big lineup with a freshman shooting guard.
“We don’t have that many natural 2s so I know that between the point guards and the freshmen coming in, there will be a lot of rotations and different looks from those two positions,” Britt said.
Tokoto has seniority at small forward, but could also end up being challenged by Pinson and Jackson, who both might be better 3-point shooters.
Paige called Jackson a “complete offensive player,” but what the trio could bring defensively has the veterans excited. Tokoto said Berry brings “physicality” that will be useful against bigger guards in the conference. Pinson has the length and quickness to guard three positions. Jackson is big enough to defend a power forward, but would likely create a mismatch for an opponent on the other end.
“They’re exactly what we need basketball-wise and talent-wise,” Paige said.
And toughness-wise, too.