If this was about only basketball, Notre Dame graduate student guard Nik Djogo would’ve packed up his left-handed shot and headed elsewhere.
He would’ve been another name in a transfer portal that runs hundreds deep every spring. Another guy looking for something that he couldn’t find at his first school/stop. Maybe it was more minutes. Or a starting role. Or a chance to play without looking over his shoulder wondering when/if he was headed back to the bench.
The first four years at Notre Dame didn’t go as planned for the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Djogo. The native of Hamilton, Ontario sat out his freshman year to preserve a year of eligibility. He was a bit player the next three years, good enough to be on the fringe of coach Mike Brey’s rotation, but never good enough to be a key guy. Mainly, because he never could do enough. Make shots? Defend? Take care of the ball? All were struggles. He was just kind of there.
There always was someone that Brey trusted more.
Having graduated with a management consulting degree last spring, Djogo was free to go wherever he wanted if he wanted and play immediately this season. Maybe even start. Score and do way more than his first three years. Sound like a good option, no?
“I never considered that,” Djogo said. “I always knew that I was going to stay here.”
The reasons were easy. Djogo could return for 2020-21 and be a captain. An old guy. A leader. Someone the head coach could point to when he talked of perseverance. For Djogo, the books also carry as much weight as the basketball. Stay at Notre Dame and he could earn a graduate degree. That would pay off long after he was done with hoops.
“When I sat down and discussed all options with my family, I figured it would be stupid to pass up my MBA from Notre Dame fully paid for,” Djogo said. “That kind of fueled my decision along with the fact that I had unfinished business on the court.”
That business included Djogo wanting to prove he could be a key piece. He might not start. He might not score double figures. He might not log heavy minutes. That didn’t mean that he couldn’t be counted on. Over the offseason, Brey talked with Djogo about being someone who could bring a Swiss Army knife mentality to the mix. He could rebound and defend. He could move the ball. He could make the occasional open shot. He could play with poise and experience, not get caught up in the bright-lights moments that seemingly blinded him as an underclassman.
He could be a culture guy, someone who preached the gospel of Brey and how it all works to the young guys.
Do that and Djogo could end his college career on his terms. That was a pretty good deal.
Djogo still had to deliver. There were doubts. He had myriad chances early in his career. A stretch of minutes here, a run of games there. Outside of that magical afternoon at Boston College on Feb. 2, 2019 (a career high 21 points), he couldn’t deliver.
“I was wondering if we’d ever get there,” Brey said. “We thought he had a future (but) as a staff, we’re thinking, maybe it’s not going to happen.”
A rough start
Concern that it might not ever happen for Djogo carried into this season and the opener at Michigan State. Less than five minutes in, Djogo was in the game as the sixth man. Less than a minute of game action later, on the second possession up and down the floor, Djogo rolled his left ankle.
Nobody saw it happen. He didn’t hobble to the sideline. He didn’t fall to the Breslin Center court. He gritted his teeth and fought through the pounding pain.
He had waited so long to get to where he was, and now this?
“It was probably one of the worst ankle sprains that I had in my career,” Djogo said. “Adrenaline was pumping a little bit.”
When it wore off, the pain didn’t. Djogo missed the next two games. He returned to play at Kentucky, but didn’t return to full strength until January. Brey said this week that one reason the Irish didn’t look like the Irish through December was that Djogo wasn’t healthy. One of four team captains, he wasn’t healthy enough to offer his voice, his presence, his leadership.
The Irish missed that.
“I knew how valuable I was to the team and I had to come back sooner,” said Djogo. “I just had to play through that.”
As the regular season winds down, Djogo’s playing the best basketball of his collegiate career. He’s secure in his role. He doesn’t look over his shoulder wondering when/if he’ll be sent back to the bench. He’s built equity with his teammates. With the coaching staff. In the locker room and within the program. He’s a veteran guy making the most of his last chance.
Djogo is averaging career numbers for points (5.3), rebounds (3.4), minutes (19.0), field goal percentage (.571) and 3-point percentage (.387). He’s also 14-for-14 from the foul line.
“I’m so pleased with him,” Brey said. “He’s been a total team guy. He’s developed more of an edge. He’s developed more of a left jab. Collectively, we needed to do that.”
On Sunday against Miami (Fla.), that meant doing a little of everything. With power forwards Juwan Durham and Nate Laszewski in foul trouble, the Irish fielded a five-guard lineup that had Djogo playing center. He also checked guard Isaiah Wong. He scored a season-high 18 points with seven rebounds and three assists in a season high 26 minutes.
On a night where the Irish collectively were shaky, No. 13 was steady. It was as if he took the temperature of his teammates, diagnosed the issues and understood how he had to play. Solid. Steady. Sure. He was all that at more.
“He’s a really great leader for us,” Laszewski said. “We all believe in him.”
Djogo’s big night against the Hurricanes earned him a rare post-game Zoom media session. He was thoughtful. He was well-spoken. He was honest, about his game and his role and his once-uncertain future. He was a fresh breath of interview air in a year where the canned answers — just take it one game at a time, just trying to help the team anyway possible — are too common.
It was good to listen to Djogo. It was great to watch him deliver. He’s finally gotten his chance and has run with it.
“It means a lot,” Djogo said of his season. “My career hasn’t gone as I expected it to here, but life’s full of ups and downs. The fact that I’ve gone through everything and still have an opportunity to contribute to this team means a great deal to me.”
As Djogo met the media, who were seated midway up the Purcell Pavilion bowl, teammate Matt Zona connected his phone to a portable speaker to play some tunes as he got some post-game work in. Music from Zona’s playlist bounced around the empty arena as Djogo talked from a nearby conference room.
The first song — by Frank Sinatra — summed up Djogo’s college experience.