As Nik Djogo Finds Himself, Notre Dame Finds An Invaluable Piece
Maybe it was during a senior season that produced 16 total points. Or after another nagging injury tanked some semblance of progress. Or amid a second straight year of decreased minutes and practice stardom never translating to gameday.
Whenever it was, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey couldn’t ward off the doubt regarding forward Nik Djogo’s career outlook — or lack thereof.
“I was wondering if we’d ever get there,” Brey said. “We redshirted him, so we thought we had a future. There was no question as a staff, we’re thinking, ‘Maybe it’s just not going to happen.’”
Fleeting pessimism didn’t turn into action, though. All offseason, Brey freely discussed his desire for Djogo to claim a sixth-man role in his final season. He’s a fifth-year senior who wanted to return and whom Brey invited back. His competition for the job would be primarily freshmen.
No reason he can’t play 15 minutes a game as a multi-positional backup wing who could make some three-pointers and grab a few rebounds, Brey thought. Never mind that he averaged 5.2 minutes and 0.6 points in 25 games last year, barely visible and out of mind.
It felt like a risk and a low-upside proposal. Turns out, it has been anything but. And after Notre Dame’s 71-61 win over Miami Sunday night, one wonders where the Irish might be without him.
The answer is worse off.
“We all believe in him,” junior forward Nate Laszewski said.
Djogo is not only Notre Dame’s sixth man and a team captain, he’s Notre Dame’s glue and a steady hand. He makes winning plays and sound decisions. He’s a perimeter threat who can also attack closeouts and exploit mismatches against less mobile big men. He might be the Irish’s best defender.
His play on Sunday showcased it all. The 6-7 Djogo had 18 points, seven rebounds (four on offense), three assists and two blocks in 26 minutes. Not since Feb. 2, 2019 had he played at least that much time.
“All year, he just senses, ‘What does my team need?’ We needed more, and he did more,” Brey said Sunday night. “The guy has been just fabulous in his role.”
Without Djogo, Notre Dame likely leaves Purcell Pavilion with a deflating loss to a wayward Miami team. He spent the evening plugging holes and keeping the Irish together in a game where they were often flat.
“The coaching staff expects a lot out of me, more than they did in the past,” Djogo said. “I take that seriously and I have a lot of pride in things I can do for the team. Just being relied upon on a day-in, day-out basis has given me a lot of confidence.”
In the bigger picture, Djogo’s final season is his and Brey’s reward for having faith in each other without past results. It’s confidence in an ability to do something without precedent for actually doing it, and three seasons of evidence that might have suggested it’s not doable. It’s determination to capitalize on a final chance and unflinching belief in potential.
Djogo says he never considered playing his fifth year elsewhere. Brey told him a 15-to-20 minute per game role was his to lose and he would be an invaluable locker room presence. He would have a lengthy on-court leash and a little more room for error. In prior seasons, he would miss a shot, turn the ball over, allow a basket or commit some other mistake and look over his shoulder. He would often see a sub trotting to the scorer’s table and a distraught coach.
Now, there’s frequently nothing to see. Just go on to the next play.
“This is the first year I have had the ability to play a little more freely,” Djogo said, “knowing that if I do make a mistake or if something happens, I’m not going to get yanked out pretty quickly.”
Perhaps all he needed to unlock another gear was to be the oldest guy around and competing with a couple freshmen for bench minutes. Either way, the infractions have decreased and impact plays are commonplace.
Djogo’s 133.3 KenPom offensive rating (points produced divided by possessions) is the best on the team and 14th nationally. His 13.7 percent turnover rate is a career-best and down from 21.3 percent a year ago. He is shooting 38.7 percent on three-pointers and 80 percent on twos. When he’s on the floor, Notre Dame’s efficiency is often at its best.
His season has been building toward a game like this. He had played at least 17 minutes in six of the last seven games, supplying whatever was needed. On Feb. 2 against Wake Forest, he grabbed eight rebounds. On Jan. 16 against Boston College, he had three assists.
On Sunday, Notre Dame needed a bit of everything on both ends.
Djogo’s night began with a three-pointer 19 seconds after he first entered the game. When Laszewski and center Juwan Durham combined for five fouls in the first 10:31, he shifted up to the five. In that 2:50 stretch at center, he pulled down two offensive rebounds and made two free throws. He allowed no points when one of Miami’s two larger forwards was matched up with him, including one possession where he forced a miss when guarding 6-9 forward Anthony Walker.
Toward the end, he was assigned to Hurricanes leading scorer Isaiah Wong, an explosive guard and driver. With 2:50 left and Notre Dame leading by five, he jumped to Wong when the ball was inbounded to him, stayed in front for 11 seconds as Wong probed and ended with a block on a drive. A critical stop that led to consecutive baskets and a 66-56 Irish lead.
In between, he supplied — among other things — a pair of layups on perimeter drives, another three-pointer, assists on interior dump-offs to Laszewski and Durham.
“A guy who has played a lot of basketball, been in our culture a long time and puts himself in the right position because of his experience,” Brey said.
Before his season got to this point, it nearly went nowhere once again. Just minutes after he entered the season-opener at Michigan State, he injured his ankle. He finished the game, but missed the next two. When he did return, it was still barking at him and not pain free until “a little after Christmas.”
“One of the worst ankle sprains I’ve had,” Djogo said. “But I knew how valuable I was to the team and needed to come back sooner. It wasn’t forced, but I just wanted to come back.”
What he knew then is no secret now.
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