The fans in the Smith Center watched as the high-flying forward dribbled down the floor on the break — in anticipation of the potential highlight-reel play Tokoto would conjure as he has done throughout his UNC career.
But as Tokoto approached the Belmont Abbey defender near the UNC basket — instead of preparing for liftoff — the Tar Heel high-riser dished the ball to freshman forward Justin Jackson at the last second for an effortless layup. Jackson’s layup gave him 16 points on the night, which led all scorers in UNC’s 112-34 trouncing of the Crusaders on Friday night.
“Once I take that last dribble, that’s when I decide what to do, and if he keeps backing up, I’m going to go for the layup or the dunk,” said Tokoto about the assist. “If he chooses me, then I’m just going to dish it off. I just dished it off to Justin nicely.
“It’s a lot of easy plays. You’ve just got to take your time. Like coach always says, ‘Just make the extra pass, make the easy play.’”
And as he did throughout the night, Tokoto made that extra pass. In fact, he made it six times en route to leading the Tar Heels with six assists — tying a career high he set on three separate occasions during the 2013-14 season.
But even more impressive than Tokoto’s six assists were the zero turnovers that accompanied them on the stat sheet.
“That’s even better because I talk to him all of the time,” Coach Roy Williams said. “He has the best eyes of any guy on our team right now about seeing things, but sometimes he fails to see the defensive player. It’s like a bad quarterback throwing in traffic all of the time. But he made the easy play every single time tonight, and it worked.”
While Tokoto finished last season with 103 assists — second only to junior guard Marcus Paige — the turnover-prone forward tallied 64 turnovers during UNC’s 34 games.
Tokoto said limiting such mishaps was a major part of his off-season training and cutting back on turnovers relied on improving one area of his game in particular.
“Ball handling,” Tokoto said. “A lot of it last year was, ‘Okay, I see the guy. I’ve got to get it out of my hands right now.’ And last year, my ball handling wasn’t up to where it needed to be. I worked on that over the summer with Coach (Hubert) Davis, and it’s proved to work out so far.”
Kennedy Meeks couldn’t agree more. The sophomore forward, who finished with 14 points, was on the receiving end of two of Tokoto’s assists.
In the waning minutes of the first half, Tokoto received a pass from sophomore guard Nate Britt on the right side of the floor. Tokoto took one dribble toward the basket — and while looking the other direction — slipped a bounce pass underneath the arm of his defender to Meeks for a layup.
“I think he sees everything. No matter if he’s looking away or not, I think he knows that you’re there,” Meeks said. “I think he knows that’s where you should be, and he takes advantage of that.”
The play might not have been as flashy as the dunks that have garnered Tokoto the ranking as ESPN’s No. 7 dunker in the country — a ranking he backed up with multiple slams, including one in which he took flight following a 360-spin past his defender.
But for the UNC forward whose reputation as a dunker precedes him, Meeks said Tokoto’s ability to finish at the rim as well as to find the open man makes him a key dual-threat for the Tar Heels.
“If he’s going to the basket, people are going to sag off,” Meeks said. “It’s open shots for Marcus open shots for Nate. If he’s out on the wing, they’re going to come out, and it’s easy buckets for us. He’s a great piece of our team. He’s a great asset to our team. He’s one of the most important people on our team.”