‘‘Diese is gonna be ‘Diese’: Toney juggles pain, success and responsibility

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

A lot has changed about junior forward Au’Diese Toney’s game during his two and a half years as a Pitt Panther. But the biggest jump in his play has come just this year. Following last Wednesday’s 70-55 win over Miami, redshirt sophomore guard Ithiel Horton said that the most noticeable change in Toney has been his aggression.

“Last year ’Diese, you’d pass him the ball on the wing and he’d look to pass first,” Horton said. “He wouldn’t look to see what he has first. But this year … his basketball IQ has increased and his aggression has increased.”

An offseason spent focused on growing his array of offensive skills has manifested itself in Toney’s best scoring and shooting numbers to date.

Through six games in 2020, he’s averaging 16.2 points a contest on 41% shooting from 3-point distance and logs 33.8 minutes per game — all career highs. None of those metrics account for the fact that he is the best defender on a Pitt team that ranks in the top-50 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.

He doesn’t play with the same flash junior guard Xavier Johnson does, nor does he record the kind of gaudy scoring numbers sophomore forward Justin Champagnie has, but Toney is still widely considered part of Pitt men’s basketball’s “Big Three” alongside Champagnie and Johnson.

Not all of what Toney brings to this Pitt team shows up in a normal box score and neither does the adversity he’s faced. Just as his successes can often lie in the background of team victories, so can his struggles.

If the 2020 Panthers’ Big Three was that of the 2012 Miami Heat, Toney would be the Chris Bosh to Champagnie and Johnson’s LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. Like Bosh, Toney’s contributions can often be overlooked because of how subtle they are. He’s not an overwhelming force, but a stealthy one.

Instead of the typical adjectives used to label a good game — “amazing”, “incredible”, “outstanding” — Pitt head coach Jeff Capel described Toney as “steady” following the win over the Hurricanes. And in no game this season has Toney embodied that modifier more than the ACC opener in Coral Gables.

In that game, Johnson and Champagnie, the Panthers’ two leading scorers, were bogged down by foul trouble. Toney not only picked up the slack offensively with 15 points and three assists on an even 50% shooting clip from the field, but provided essential leadership as well.

A Hurricane blitz to open the second half erased a healthy Pitt lead, much to the dismay of Capel. He called his team in during a timeout and laid into them. Following that timeout, the Panthers embarked on a 19-2 run that put the game away for good. Capel said postgame that Toney was essential to that turn around.

“I credit all of them, but I really credit Au’Diese Toney with that, because he got them together,” Capel said. “He’s been a steady guy for us and it’s been really cool to watch his growth as a player and as a leader.”

But with the growth that has elevated his team into a much more serious contender in the competitive ACC has come personal grief.

During the summer before his sophomore year, as the Panthers prepared to depart for a 10-day team trip to Italy, Toney learned that his grandmother, a woman he was as close with as anyone in his life, had passed away.

The pain of losing a loved one weighed on Toney, and it wasn’t until a breakout game against Duke this past January that he felt comfortable sharing how his grandmother’s passing had made playing the game he loves difficult.

Following his 27-point outing against the then No. 9 Blue Devils, Toney was asked various forms of the same question: Where had this kind of play been for the past two seasons?

Toney fumbled for a minute before the relief of being able to share his sadness publicly was clear. He said it’s always been within him, but the grief of losing a loved one made it hard to live up to that potential, Toney said during a media availability days after the Duke game.

“It’s always been there,” Toney said. “I’ve just been going through a lot the first half of the season. I lost a loved one, my grandmother. So it’s been a rough year to me. I had to come back together.”

Now in his junior season, anxiety over a family member’s health has once again been heaped on to the normal stressors of being a Division I athlete expected to star in college basketball’s upper echelon.

While Toney and his teammates were shooting around last Saturday ahead of a Saturday matinee against Garnder-Webb, Toney found out through teammates, Twitter and ESPN app alerts that his cousin, Florida forward Keyontae Johnson, had collapsed on the court in the middle of a game against Florida State that same day.

Johnson was rushed to the hospital and by the following Monday had been placed in a medically induced coma. Johnson has since been showing “truly encouraging signs of progress” according to hs team and has since come out of the coma. On Friday he gave a public statement for the first time since the incident. That has helped to ease some of Toney’s concern, but not before it adversely affected his play.

Toney kept his worry for Johnson hidden from the outside world, confiding in only a few about how the incident had rattled his mind. Capel said Toney “didn’t seem himself” playing against Gardner-Webb, and it wasn’t until after that he learned why.

“I suspected it, but I didn’t know it — Au’Diese seemed off, he didn’t seem himself,” Capel said. “And later I found out that he’s really [close] with Keyontae Johnson. And so what was going on there, he had a heavy heart.”

Toney has since rebounded from the Gardner-Webb game, in which he posted a pedestrian stat line of nine points and three rebounds, with his well-rounded showing against Miami four days later.

Sill, the grief weighs. And in a year where the COVID-19 pandemic has created an ocean of separation between players and the loved ones that typically keep them grounded, Toney said that he has struggled to keep up with responsibilities to himself and the team.

“It’s been real tough,” Toney said following the Miami game. “You don’t wish that on anybody, but it can happen to anybody. So the fact that it happens to a relative, your cousin, your family, it’s heartbreaking. It’s shocking … I use basketball for my sanctuary, to get away from my problems. But when something happens to your family, someone you’re close to, it’s very difficult to overcome.”

Toney’s teammates have tried to balance their high expectations for his play and leadership with understanding that grief and anxiety won’t always allow him to perform at his best.

Champagnie was asked how Toney was holding up, days removed from the Gardner-Webb game and Johnson’s emergency. In his answer, Champagnie summed up the player and man he’s come to know in Toney.

“He’s tried to put it to the side and focus on basketball,” Champagnie said. “You can tell it’s bothering him a little bit, but he’s pushing through it, he keeps working. ‘Diese is gonna be ‘Diese … he’s gonna fight through everything.”