Of all the adjectives that can be used to describe a key player on a basketball team, Newton’s Josh Tukes probably likes “sticky” the most.
It’s because he values what his coach, Rick Rasmussen, has to say about his game.
“Josh Tukes is the glue to this team,” Rasmussen said after a Thursday afternoon practice. Then he reiterated it. “I mean, he’s the glue. He’s the old reliable, so to speak.”
That’s saying a lot for the 6-foot-6 senior post player, considering the caliber of players that surround him on the No. 1 ranked Class AAAAAAA team in Georgia.
Tukes is flanked by arguably the state’s best backcourt in sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans – one of the top Class of 2019 prospects in the nation – Jacksonville signee and sharp shooter J.D. Notae and 6-foot-1 guard Isaiah Miller who is a highlight waiting to happen.
Those guys get all the pub. They grab the headlines. But Tukes doesn’t really care. He holds a quieter, more understated role on the team. But quiet doesn’t mean unimportant, and Tukes knows it.
“It’s kind of an honor hearing those compliments of me come from my coach,” Tukes said. “It means the things I’ve done on the court have made him and the team happy.
Tukes says it’s because of the talent around him that he knows he doesn’t have to try and force the issue on the court.
“I know that with our guards, they’re going to be great every night. I don’t really worry about them. It takes a lot of pressure off me to where I just have to go out and set a screen and get out the way, or play tough defense. I just try to do my part every night to put us in position to win.”
And that low maintenance approach, according to Rasmussen, is what makes his four-year varsity big man great.
“If there’s anyone who’s going to be stable, solid and consistent. If there’s anyone who knows their role, doesn’t complain and knows what to do especially defensively, it’s going to be Josh,” Rasmussen said. “He knows how to be in the right spots. Defensively, he communicates very well. He sees the floor. He protects the back of our press. He’s just solid. Really solid.”
And confident. Rasmussen noticed an uptick in Tukes’ in-game swagger, particularly last week when he was going heads up against one of the nation’s best and hottest high school players in Spartanburg Day’s Zion Williamson.
Although Williamson scored 31 in Newton’s win against Spartanburg Day in the Farm Bureau Insurance Classic in Spartanburg, SC, only eight of those points came in the second half – and seven of them came in the last 90 seconds of the game.
Much credit to putting the clamps on Williamson in the second half can be given to both Hagans and Tukes. Hagans drew the assignment of guarding Williamson up and down the floor. But when the 6-foot-8, 260-pound Williamson migrated to the lower blocks in an attempt to post up or get in-the-paint buckets, Tukes was there making him work for it.
“I would just go straight up against him and try not to get into foul trouble,” Tukes said. “Even though I fouled out in the game, I just resolved that I was going to play tough, physical and hard against him. When I see people play against him, I saw they don’t ever put their hands on him or get up on him or in his face.”
Some of that may be due to the intimidation factor that, no doubt, comes with bodying up against arguably the top high school player in the nation.
But Tukes said such propensities toward fear have been long burned out of his psyche.
“Ever since I played Jaylen Brown my sophomore year, I learned not to be scared of anyone,” said Tukes, in reference to Brown, a former Wheeler and Cal-Berkely star who now plays with the NBA’s Boston Celtics.
“At first, I was kind of star struck,” he added. “But when we got down by 20 in that game, I just settled down and realized it’s just basketball.”
Same thing last season when Tukes went up against 2015-16 state champion Westlake and its 6-foot-7, 210 pound, 4-star prospect at the time, Chuma Okeke.
Okeke was an Auburn pledge at the time when Tukes faced him in the Final Four round of the state tournament – a game Newton lost 64-59.
“I played against him in AAU all the time, so it wasn’t anything new,” Tukes said.
So going up against a player like Williamson was kind of old hat for Tukes.
“I felt like I played average against (Zion Williamson) honestly,” he said. “I think I could have played better. Like I said, I’m not scared of anybody. No matter what people say about him, he’s still gotta come out and play just like the rest of us. The way I see it, he’s just one player. But we have five guys who can do what he does in terms of scoring and stuff like that. When you go against a player like that, it’s not like something you haven’t seen before.”
Tukes had an admirable 11 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots against Williamson and company last week in Spartanburg. In Newton’s first tournament game against Boiling Springs, he had a career high nine blocked shots.
He prides himself on defense, which is why scoring big isn’t his main priority. He credits his admiration of New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis for that.
“He’s probably my favorite player, because he focuses more on defense, even though he can score,” Tukes said.
And as Newton hits the halfway mark of the season, Tukes is focusing more on trying to help the Rams position themselves for a state title run. But it isn’t all about basketball for Rasmussen’s big man.
The coach says that perhaps the most special aspect of Tukes as a student-athlete is his impact away from the hardwood.
As a student, Tukes carries a 4.0 grade point average, and he desires to major in engineering in college. He has opportunities to play basketball at several smaller schools. But because of his desire to be a mechanical or biomedical engineer, he’s got his eyes on attending Georgia Tech or Kennesaw State – even if there’s no basketball scholarships involved.
“I want to make robots and robotic parts for people in the army who lose their legs and arms in combat,” Tukes said.
“He doesn’t mess around with his future,” Rasmussen added. “He knows what he wants. He could play at other places, and he may try to walk on at Tech or Kennesaw State. He’s met with those coaches and everything. But Josh wants to secure his future first.”
That’s why he puts as much effort into the classroom as he does on the court. He leaves room for his analytic mind to make him a better player, which makes Newton a more complete team.
“I just love the game of basketball,” Tukes said. “Everything about it. I love studying it, watching it and playing it. I just want to be the best I can be at it, or whatever it is I do.”