From the moment Lamont Paris and his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coaching staff saw Donovann Toatley on the basketball court as a recruit, one thing became immediately clear — and it's something that endeared him to the braintrust.
Toatley would never stop working to improve.
It's why, despite standing just 5-foot-9, Toatley was targeted by the Mocs as a key figure for their future. They were the first Division I program to offer him a spot, something that stuck with him when, after five more D-I offers, he chose to come down South.
"It was the grace of God," said Toatley, who was named MVP as he led his prep team, Riverdale Baptist, to the 2017 Maryland private school championship.
"Going into my second-to-last tournament in the summer, I didn't have any offers and Chattanooga offered me. When I came on my visit, I fell in love with everything — the city, the coaching staff, the arena and the school itself. I knew right away that I wanted to build a legacy and help turn around the program."
With three weeks remaining in the regular season for UTC (11-15, 6-7 Southern Conference), the freshman guard has firmly entrenched himself in the Mocs' present and future. On a very young team, his scoring average of 11.9 points per game ranks second, and he leads the Mocs in assists and is third in minutes per game.
He also leads the Mocs in energy, something that was a given from the start.
"A huge part of my success is I always have a dog mentality," he said. "I established in my life early that if I wanted anything, I would have to work for it and go get it. I carry that mindset with me every day, every practice and every game. I never gave up on myself."
Growing up in the basketball-crazy Washington, D.C., area, Toatley learned early that getting court time at his size would require a total dedication to the sport and the ability to block out the naysayers. It's a reason Toatley, who was named one of the area's top playmakers by prephoops.com as a senior, plays all-out all the time.
"People think I joke when I say this, but I had a ball in my hand since I came out of the womb," he said. "This is my calling in life.
"Competition in PG (Prince George County, Maryland) is crazy, and you never know who you are going to run into. I've been friends and have had the opportunity to create bonds with some of the best players ever in Maryland, in my era and before me, including guys like Michael Beasley and Kevin Durant.
"You go back there, especially when school is out, and a pickup game can look like a pro factory. It just makes you work even harder knowing you come from a different cut of cloth."
Toatley's aggressiveness has, Paris said, been a double-edged sword at times. He can make defenders look silly with his ball-handling ability, but his charges into the lane sometimes get out of control.
On one hand, he has taken more free throws than anyone on the team, a telling stat given his size. On the other hand, he's also second on the team in turnovers.
Paris won't take away Toatley's aggression. He just hopes to help him develop into a more consistent weapon.
"He's competitive, and that competitive spirit is why he is where he is," Paris said. "It's not like he's 6-7 with a seven-foot wingspan, you know. One of the first things we noticed when we watched him with his AAU team was that he never backed down from anyone.
"Attacking the rim is an area he can be really good, putting extreme pressure on the defense and then making good decisions when he gets down there. Attack doesn't always mean shoot, and in his mind right now it means that way more times than it doesn't. Attacking specifically to put pressure on the defense and then being able to read it and take what they are giving you — that's where he can make the biggest leap forward."
Toatley has also, after early struggles, established himself as a team leader. His competitiveness turned off a few teammates at first, and a suspension for breaking team rules early in the season didn't help his cause with coaches. Since returning, though, his infectious personality and high on-court energy have won over his teammates — who, like "Don," are almost all new to the program.
"Don, I'm really close to him," freshman star and roommate Kevin Easley said. "At first I don't think he was a fan of us because of where he came from, but we've gotten close."
Added sophomore forward Ramon Vila: "Since the start of the season, Don has gotten so much better. I tell him every day to keep working and keep getting your shot because he's a true scorer. He was a bit anxious at the start of the season, but he has really stepped up and he's been unstoppable."
Toatley's first post-suspension game was a 10-assist performance at Ole Miss on Dec. 16, and he has scored in double figures in eight of his past 10 games. He was a rare bright spot in a home loss to Western Carolina on Jan. 31, leading a rally with daring drives into the lane and finishing with 19 points, including making 11 of 12 free throws.
That defeat, though, is one of five in the past six games for UTC heading into today's 5 p.m. EST game at Samford (15-11, 5-8). While the Mocs' slide in the SoCon standings hasn't been so bad to take away hope of earning a bye at next month's league tournament, part of their frustration with the slump comes from the fact that they have held second-half leads against league powers UNC Greensboro, East Tennessee State and Wofford during the bad run but lost each game.
The optimistic Toatley sees his team's glass as half full.
"Early in the season we would have folded early on in those games, but it's all about experience and learning how to take bumps in the middle of games," he said. "We're very new to each other. I still feel we can be a very special team. I don't know if it will be this year or next year. It doesn't really matter when it comes, but it will come."