May 4—He is still the same P.J. Lovato who does the little things out on the basketball court.
But now, he must do a little more than he was accustomed to for the Santa Fe High boys basketball team.
Lovato, the Demons' 6-foot-3 junior post, made a name for himself by doing the dirty work — he was the guy who dove for loose balls, played tough defense, crashed the glass for a rebound and cut to the basket for an open layup. He was the "glue guy" on talented Santa Fe High teams that reached the Class 5A championship and quarterfinals the past two years.
But his role changed this season to become more of a focal point on the offense, especially being the best interior option after the departure of star forward Fedonta "JB" White, who opted to graduate early and play for the University of New Mexico before his untimely death in August.
Suddenly, the ball was in Lovato's hands more often, and it was a new feeling for him.
"I've just had to be more aggressive and take it to the basket more and not passing up shots like I how I was," Lovato said.
While it took time, Lovato has learned how to be an effective scoring option, as well as the heart of a Santa Fe High team looking to make some more noise during the Class 5A State Tournament. The eighth-seeded Demons play at top-seeded Rio Rancho Cleveland at 7 p.m. Tuesday for a spot in the Thursday semifinals.
Zack Cole, Santa Fe High coach, said Lovato has been more assertive in taking on more of the offensive load over the past two weeks as the Demons battled Los Lunas to a tie in the District 5-5A standings, while still displaying all the intangibles that make him a special player.
"He is such a great kid, an unselfish kid," Cole said. "We're putting him in space and letting him make some of the decisions that our guards kinda make. We are letting him have more room to work with when he has the ball in the high post or the mid post or the low post so he can utilize his skills."
One underrated part of Lovato's game is in the low post, where Cole says he has phenomenal footwork to go with some underrated athleticism. Lovato's explosive jumping ability helps him get to the ball more quickly against taller defenders and leads to many of his second-chance opportunities. He also is becoming more adept at shot-faking to get his defenders into the air and slipping a shot past them.
"He has gotten so much better at that as the season has gone on," Cole said.
Still, there was a point when Lovato felt like he was not playing at the level he wanted. Some of that was related to an ankle injury he suffered during a regular-season meeting against Cleveland on April 3 that lingered for a couple of weeks.
After a shocking 49-45 home loss to Albuquerque High that saw the Demons trail by as much as 16 points in the opening half, Lovato talked with Cole about the frustration he felt at not doing more to help the team.
"I told him how I felt like I wasn't there with the team and just had a talk about everything for a while," Lovato said. "After that, he gave me the green light to just go."
Cole, though, said that was exactly what he and the coaching staff wanted out of Lovato from the beginning of the season. However, he also pointed out to Lovato that points were just one part of the equation.
"We knew there was going to be some growing pains there and he might not be scoring as many points as he wants," Cole said. "You know how kids are. They pay a lot of attention to the point totals. There were a few games were he had five, six eight points, but he'd have 12, 15 rebounds. He'd deter a lot of shots and help us handle the pressure.
"I'd have to show him on film, 'Look at that hustle play, diving for a loose ball when it was crucial possession.' When we'd look at film, we'd have to point that out to him."
After all, Lovato's value can't be measured in points. He does so much more than that.