Noie: Notre Dame sophomore Nikola Djogo answers challenge to become a better guard

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

To get comfortable in the game, with his place in the Notre Dame men’s basketball program, with the notion of becoming a more complete player in his second season, sophomore guard Nikola Djogo first had to embrace an uncomfortable assignment.

There was no choice. That had to be his role. He had to figure it out. Left early with mostly questions, he might be on his way to having more answers.

As the Irish convened on campus for summer school in June, coach Mike Brey had a dilemma. Pairing senior Matt Farrell and sophomore T.J. Gibbs in the same starting backcourt left the Irish with no true point guard to run the reserve (blue team) in practices. A year ago, that was the job of Gibbs. He took it and ran with it. But no more. Not as a starter. He’s now playing with Farrell. And when Farrell needs a break, the ball goes into the hands of Gibbs.

What to do? Brey would eventually decide to add senior Liam Nelligan as a walk-on to give the Irish a little more backcourt flexibility during practices. But in summer's short term, there was only one option.

That was Djogo, who sat out his freshman season to preserve a year of eligibility. Djogo (pronounced JO-go) had played point guard a little bit in high school, but asking him to handle the ball and initiate the offense and make decisions on the fly against Farrell and Gibbs, two seasoned decision-makers, was at first overwhelming.

There were times during summer sessions when Djogo would execute a basic pick and roll, but in all the wrong ways. The starters (white team) would pick the ball from him, then roll the other way with the turnover and another easy basket. It was frustrating for Djogo, but he kept at it.

Above all else, guards in Brey’s system are told one simple rule – the ultimate golden rule – the minute they arrive.

Take.

Care.

Of.

The.

Ball.

Always.

Don’t do it, and you don’t play. Djogo has learned to try and never break that rule. Ever.

“I definitely have to take care of the ball, or our team is going to lose in practice,” Djogo said. “But I was looking at first to not mess up and not make the right reads. Guys were picking the ball from me, stealing it.”

As summer unfolded, Djogo settled in. He played play pick and roll the right way. He found the open guy at the right time, got him the ball in his shooting pocket so he could make a shot. The more he worked at the point, the more confident he became in taking a few more chances. Driving it. Dishing it. Finishing at the rim. Pulling up for perimeter shots.

His efficiency increased. His turnovers decreased. He got it.

“It was a little rough early,” Brey said. “He’s becoming a better guard.”

Who is he?

The more Djogo has handled it, the more intriguing option he’s become for Brey and the 14th-ranked Irish, who play the second of their three exhibition games Friday at what likely will be a sold-out Purcell Pavilion against neighboring Bethel College.

Brey’s first quote about Djogo inside the team’s media notes packet says a lot about the 6-foot-7, 211-pounder from Hamilton, Ontario who spent his prep school year at Athlete Institute Prep in Orangeville, Ontario as a teammate of future NBA lottery pick Thon Maker.

“The mystery man.”

Mystery not because anyone still wonders whether Djogo can play at this level. He has the pedigree to be the next in a long line of elite Irish shooters. Watching him do his pre-game work last year with assistant coach Ryan Ayers, the left-handed Djogo would run off six, seven, eight, nine consecutive shots and swishes from the 3-point arc. He can shoot it. He can drive it. He can finish at the rim, as evidence by his two dunks, including one off a Rex Pflueger lob, in Notre Dame’s exhibition opener against Holy Cross. He’s long. He’s strong.

And he can play. Working at point guard has reinforced that belief by Djogo. By his coaches. By his teammates.

“I can do a little of everything, kind of a Swiss Army knife type of guy,” Djogo said. “I’ll surprise some people this year.”

Big words. Big plans. But Djogo’s prepared to back it all up. He also embraces the pressure that comes with being good enough to earn consistent minutes in games that matter. Last year was relatively easy for him. He could play well in practice. He could struggle. It really didn’t matter. Come game nights, he’d be at the end of the bench dressed in street clothes playing the part of cheerleader.

This year, the pressure to perform never ceases. Want to crack a rotation that’s already heavy on perimeter players? Want to see minutes that matter? Better bring it every day in practice, and then be better the next day. And the next. And the next.

Fine by Djogo.

“There comes a time where you have to produce and everything you do is kind of looked at a little closer,” he said. “I haven’t touched the floor in a year, so I’m really excited to get out there and start contributing.”

The Irish couldn’t have asked for a better start for Djogo his first time out. Yeah, it was against an overmatched opponent in a game that wasn’t really close. Yeah, it was only an exhibition. But for the 23 minutes he was on the floor against Holy Cross, Djogo played and looked the part. Like, he belonged.

Djogo connected on six of his nine shots from the floor for 15 points. He added a rebound, a steal and a turnover.

“He’s as athletic as hell; he can guard anybody,” Brey said. “He’s a wild card. I’m trying to figure out who he’s going to be.”

For much of last month, Brey often grouped Djogo together with true freshman D.J. Harvey when answering questions about his rotation. Djogo, Harvey. Harvey, Djogo. Harvey has the bigger high school rep that may necessitate major minutes sooner than later, but for now, Djogo has a better understanding of how it all flows and where he best fits.

There may come a time when Harvey’s pure talent overtakes Djogo in the rotation, but Djogo likely won’t stray too far from the head coach’s thoughts. There’s too much to work with.

“You don’t know what we’re going to get, but you know that we’ve got a great attitude with an athletic and skill level and a willingness to be coached,” Brey said. “You feel something good is going to eventually happen.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame sophomore Nikola Djogo has become a better guard after being forced to play the point this summer. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)

Exhibition

WHO: No. 14 Notre Dame vs. Bethel College

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Friday at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Some available, though a sellout is expected.

TV: ACCNetwork Extra, available on the WatchESPN app.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM/96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI

NOTING: Separated by five miles, these schools have never met. … Located in neighboring Mishawaka, Bethel is an NAIA school ranked No. 22 in the preseason poll. The Pilots already are 2-0 this season, their first under 31-year-old rookie head coach Ryne Lightfoot. … Gage Ott scored 20 points with three rebounds and Trey’von Covington added 18 points, five rebounds and three steals in a 98-61 home opener victory Tuesday over Simmons (Ky.) College. The Pilots led by 20 in the first half and by 48 overall. … Bethel opened Monday with a road victory over cross-town rival Holy Cross. … Former Irish power forward LaPhonso Ellis is in his first season as a Bethel assistant coach. He tutors the Pilots’ big men. … The team’s tallest player is power forward Matt McCown (6-foot-9), a freshman from Granger and graduate of Penn High School … The Pilots won 31 games and advanced to the NAIA’s Elite Eight last season. … This is the second of three preseason games for Notre Dame, which opened with a 97-57 victory over Holy Cross on Oct. 20. The Irish led by as many as 44. Senior power forward Martinas Geben led the Irish with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Junior guard Rex Pflueger added 18 points, eight rebounds, five assists, three steals, two blocks and no turnovers. … Notre Dame concludes exhibition play Tuesday at home against Cardinal Stritch before the regular-season opener Nov. 11 at DePaul.

QUOTING: “Nik’s made great progress. He does some stuff athletically that not a lot of guys can do.”

-Irish coach Mike Brey on sophomore guard Nikola Djogo.