- C.L. Brown, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina forward J.P. Tokoto checked the box scores and changed his jersey number from No. 25 as a freshman to No. 13 as a sophomore. The seemingly cosmetic gesture could be the best decision of his college career.
Near the end of last season, his minutes diminished, leaving him to wonder what it would take to get back on the floor. In the final 13 games he appeared, Tokoto played sparingly, averaging just 4.3 minutes per game. This came after he averaged 11.1 minutes through the first 22 games of the season.
"I sat down and looked at all the games and box stats and all of that and 13 was the amount of games I actually made a significant difference for my team," said Tokoto, who played in all but one of the Tar Heels' games last season.
Making a difference to Tokoto wasn't based solely on scoring points -- he only reached double figures twice -- but it included his rebounding and impacting the game with defensive plays.
He carried the No. 13, which he will have on Friday as North Carolina holds its annual "Late Night With Roy" festivities, into his strength and conditioning sessions in the weight room. He was still fixated on the numbers when he'd work on his jumper with assistant coach Hubert Davis. It was effectively his sole motivation during the offseason.
"I hold that number in the back of my mind," Tokoto said. "I'm all about forward progress; I want that number to be a lot bigger this year."
Tokoto is one player who will have the chance to benefit from the early absence of P.J. Hairston. He'll get his wish of being in the lineup more while Hairston serves his pending multiple-game suspension.
In order to stay there, Tokoto will have to show more consistency than he did as a freshman. He displayed the erratic swings between spectacular plays and head-scratching moments last season. He ended with more turnovers (31) than assists (26), which was one area UNC coach Roy Williams said he already has shown signs of improved ball handling in the preseason.
"[Tokoto is] not turning it over and just throwing it everywhere and anywhere," Williams said.
Tokoto can pass, that was clear at his former high school in Menomonee Falls, Wis. But many who saw him play before coming to Chapel Hill raved only about his athleticism.
His YouTube "mixtape highlights" from his days before arriving in Chapel Hill received over 1.2 million views.
In making a bigger impact in more games, Tokoto hopes to crush what he considers to be a stereotype of his game. He no longer wants his freakish athleticism to be the center of discussions. He wants to be thought of as skilled.
"I know people just see a jumping ability," Tokoto said. "I definitely use that to my advantage just getting my name out there. This year is going to be a lot of just proving to people I can do more than just jumping."
Senior Leslie McDonald said that Tokoto is well on his way to doing that based on practice.
"I call him a freak of nature when you see him dunking over people and jumping out the gym," McDonald said. "But you really see that he's transitioning to becoming more than just an athlete. He's a player that is aggressive, plays defense, takes good shots, gets teammates open."
"Makes open jumpers" could soon be added to McDonald's list after all the work Tokoto put in with Davis. Guard Marcus Paige said Tokoto was obsessed with making sure he got better during the offseason.
"He wanted to make sure he could knock that shot consistently. I think he made strides in that department," Paige said. "Obviously games will show whether or not he makes those consistently, but he's definitely improved as a shooter, especially in the midrange."
Davis' simple instruction for Tokoto to keep his elbow closer was the only mechanical change Tokoto said he made. But he said the results have been fantastic. He's shooting from midrange effectively; he's even stepping back beyond the 3-point line with confidence.
"So far, keeping my elbow in, I'm shooting a hell of a lot better than shooting, what? 19 percent from 3," said Tokoto, who made only 1 of 11 from behind the arc last season. "I'm definitely way more comfortable out on the 3-point line now. I'm not hesitant at all to take the shot."
More important, his teammates no longer cringe when they see him take that shot. McDonald said Tokoto's shot has improved "tremendously and drastically." For Tokoto not to revert to the errant, yet comfortable, form he used to shoot with, it's imperative that he have success early.
Although Williams didn't review Tokoto's every game last season to sign off on his self-proclaimed 13-game impact, he didn't feel as though he had to in order to predict Tokoto's influence this season.
"I have never evaluated it like that so it'd be hard to compare," Williams said. "But I can easily say he's going to be a factor this year in a lot more than ."