Chattanooga center Justin Tuoyo remembers the feeling he got the first time he blocked a shot.
Tuoyo was about six years old. His opponent was older brother Andre, who was considerably bigger and stronger and cut his sibling no slack in their driveway one-on-one matches. As Andre went up for a shot, young Justin reached up and slapped it away.
“It was probably more like a steal,” Tuoyo said, laughing at the recollection. “But it felt good. Growing up, my brother and I were always going at it. He would talk smack real bad. It was good to finally get one over on him.”
Tuoyo, who would eventually grow to 6-foot-10 and 235 pounds, had discovered his calling. But his long frame and 7-foot-1 wingspan weren’t his only assets. College coaches and NBA scouts say that timing can’t be coached and it’s a gift a player either has or doesn’t. Tuoyo has the gift.
“I’ve been around a lot of great shot blockers,” said Chattanooga coach Matt McCall, who was a Florida assistant to Billy Donovan when the Gators won consecutive NCAA championships in 2006-07. “The Al Horfords. The Joakim Noahs. I don’t know if I’ve been around anyone who has as good timing and can block shots like Justin Tuoyo can.”
One highly refined skill is enough for a college player to attract attention from NBA scouts and give him a chance to play at the next level. If Tuoyo, whose named has already turned up in some mock drafts, finds himself on an NBA roster one day, defense will be his calling card.
Tuoyo has no problem becoming a specialist. He’s prepared for that role most of his life.
“I played rec league ball when I was seven,” Tuoyo said. “But it was with an older group. I always blocked shots. Even when I was a little kid. That’s kind of been my role on any team I’ve been on.”
The first time VCU coach Will Wade saw Tuoyo play, the then-high school sophomore blocked eight shots in a game. That was more than enough to pique the interest of Wade, who at the time was a VCU assistant under Shaka Smart. “You knew that skill would translate to college,” Wade said. “So I definitely wanted to monitor his progress.”
VCU wasn’t alone in keeping tabs on Tuoyo, who was rated by some recruiting analysts as a Top 100 prospect. Power conference schools -- including Clemson, Alabama, Virginia and Virginia Tech -- all offered scholarships. VCU won out because Wade, who prides himself on relationship building, became friends with Tuoyo’s top adviser.
“Coach Wade came in and developed a relationship with my mom instantly,” Tuoyo said. “So I went on a visit to VCU and felt it was the right place.”
Tuoyo didn’t last long at VCU. Frustrated after not playing much as a freshman in 2012-13, he decided to transfer. Mercer, in Tuoyo’s home state of Georgia, was his intended destination. But then Wade, at just 30, was hired as coach at Chattanooga.
“I’d called coach Wade and told him I thought I was going to Mercer,” Tuoyo said. “But he said, hold on, that he thought he was going to get the Chattanooga job in a couple of days. He got the job on a Monday. On Tuesday, I told him I was coming to Chattanooga.”
The decision benefitted both men, and would eventually become a gift for McCall, too. Tuoyo redshirted in 2013-14 and worked on building up his body and developing his offensive game.
“He got better,” Wade said. “He got to work. He took things extremely seriously. He knew he had to get more skilled on the offensive end. He worked hard in the weight room. He had the natural shot-blocking and rebounding instincts, but he became even more proficient. The weight added confidence to him.”
As a rookie coach, Wade took a Chattanooga team that had lost 40 games combined in the previous two seasons to an 18-15 record. The next year, with Tuoyo in the lineup, the Mocs finished 22-10. He blocked 104 shots, a school single-season record and a total that was greater than 156 Division I teams. He finished fourth in the country with an average of 3.3 blocks a game and was chosen Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
“I love playing defense. Especially blocking shots. The guy that’s shooting the shot thinks it’s going in. It does something to them when it gets blocked. The crowd likes it. It punches your team up."
After the season, Wade was hired to replace Smart at VCU after Smart took the Texas job. Tuoyo’s options were limited because he’d already burned a redshirt year, so he decided to stay and give McCall a chance. With the team Wade recruited intact, McCall led the Mocs to a 29-6 record that included victories at Georgia, Illinois and Dayton and a trip to the NCAA tournament. Tuoyo was once again chosen the SoCon’s top defender after blocking 77 shots and becoming Chattanooga’s all-time leading shot blocker in just two seasons.
After the season, Tuoyo, who graduated, could have chosen to play his final season at a power conference school, transferring with immediate eligibility. But he continued to remain loyal to the program that gave him a chance to shine. This season, Tuoyo has already blocked 83 shots -- he’s fourth in the country with his average of 3.15 per game -- and is averaging career highs in scoring (13.3 ppg) and rebounding (6.7 rpg). Chattanooga is 19-7 and positioning itself for another run at an NCAA tournament berth.
In every game the Mocs play, opponents must account for Tuoyo on both ends of the floor. But even as he’s gotten more skilled offensively, his greatest impact remains as a defender.
“He’s our rim protector,” said senior guard Tre’ McLean. “He’s our anchor for the defense. He’s a great shot blocker, and he’s got great feel for the game. When I’m out there guarding guys who are quick or talented, I’ve got the confidence to know that if one of those guys beats me, Tuoyo’s going to be able to step up and block the shot. He takes charges also. That energizes our team. He’s a great defender back there and a great anchor for our defense.”
Tuoyo’s quickness and ability to switch off ball screens and guard point guards helped fuel the Mocs’ win at Dayton last season. The Flyers trailed 60-59 with 5.3 seconds to play when Tuoyo made a play that still causes McLean to shake his head.
“It’s my favorite Tuoyo defensive play ever,” McLean said. “Greg Pryor [Chattanooga point guard] got hit with a screen and [Dayton guard] Scoochie Smith coming at full speed. Tuoyo was able to affect the shot without fouling, with time running down, on the very last play of the game. We all know how good of a player Scoochie Smith is, and what he’s capable of. That’s my favorite play right there. Stepping up when the game’s on the line, saying ‘I’ve got you guys.’ ”
Neither Wade nor McCall have any doubt that Tuoyo will play in the NBA.
“He’s somebody who brings immediate shot blocking and rebounding and the ability to guard on the perimeter,” Wade said.
McCall again points to his days at Florida for a Tuoyo comparison.
“Justin reminds me of [current Dallas Mavericks guard] Dorian Finney-Smith,” McCall said. “He didn’t get drafted. But he’s started some games for the Mavericks this year. The reason he made that roster is because of his ability on the defensive end of the floor. He can guard multiple positions because he can move his feet. Justin’s like that.
“Another thing about Justin is he’s got a passion to play the game. When you watch him play and watch him run up and down the floor, he’s having fun. He’s enjoying what he’s doing. That’s something I’ve seen in other guys that have made it at the next level. They have a passion for playing. They enjoy playing.”
Tuoyo, praised by coaches and teammates alike for his pro-like work ethic, knows his work has just begun. But he’s put in countless hours in the weight room, studying opponents’ tendencies on film, working on his weaknesses. He looks forward to the day when there are no time limitations placed on his practice regimen. He’s well aware that if an NBA team drafts him, the reason will be to fill a specific role.
Tuoyo’s OK with that. That thrill he got blocking his brother’s shot so many years ago drives him to this day.
“I love playing defense,” Tuoyo said. “Especially blocking shots. The guy that’s shooting the shot thinks it’s going in. It does something to them when it gets blocked. The crowd likes it. It punches your team up.
“I don’t go out there every game and say ‘I’m going to block five shots.’ But if I have the opportunity, I’m going to do it. That’s points that are not going on the board for the other team. So it helps us win the game. I love it.”
Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.