BURNABY — It’s not about their adversity. It’s about their reaction to it.
And thus as a new B.C. senior boys high school basketball season tips off this Monday around the province, perhaps the biggest question to be answered is how the Burnaby South Rebels will cope with the fact that its best player, 6-foot-10 senior forward Sasha Vujisic, is recovering from a broken leg suffered on the court back in August?
“He is starting this season with a broken leg, he broke his leg in August and he’s recovering now,” Burnaby South head coach Mike Bell said Tuesday afternoon. “We’ve kept it under wraps. He’s out of the cast now. He is going to play. It happened during a 3-on-3 game at the Edmonds Rec Centre. I don’t think he’s telling too many people.”
It has been an especially tough past 12 months for Vujisic.
He was shelved after breaking a finger at last season’s Tsumura Basketball Invitational in December, then forced to sit out the team’s Final Four loss at the provincials last March to eventual champion Lord Tweedsmuir after suffering a high ankle sprain in the quarterfinals.
The toll has been greatest on Vujisic, of course, yet the combination of his intense resolve, and that of his team over the last year has done nothing but toughen the veneer of a team which opens at No. 1 in the Varsity Letters’ preseason Big 10 rankings, a lofty based not on where they currently stand, but on where they are expected to finish.
“The reality is that you want your best game in February, not in December,” said Bell, a young coach who has nonetheless experienced all of the ups and downs associated with the vocation during his tenure leading the program.
“For now, we want to get our team all the minutes we can,” he continued. “We have some young players and we want them to find a comfort at the senior level. It’s a big jump from junior to senior, so getting into the TBI (Dec.4-7) and the Heritage Woods tournament (Nov. 28-30) is good for us.”
Talent galore, some of it battle-tested, but a fair share of it still a little wet behind the ears. An injured superstar in the wings, waiting to find his health and rejoin his teammates. And throughout that process, a need for this unique group of players to get their reps together and define their chemistry and their identity.
Hmmm… sounds very, very familiar.
SHADES OF THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON?
It was back at the 2018 B.C. Senior Boys Quad-A championships that an eighth-seeded Burnaby South squad climbed to the top of the mountain, winning its first provincial title since 1979 with a Cinderella effort led in large part by the late-season front-court chemistry developed by the then-Grade 10 Vujisic and the senior tournament MVP Jusuf Sehic.
If some of the details of that magical finish seem familiar, the actual schematics detailed a path not completely unfamiliar to the one potentially facing the Rebels this season as Vujisic continues to rehab in front of his return.
Back in the early stages of that 2017-18 season, Vujisic has lost a lot of his fitness as he battled through a number of lower-body repetitive-strain injuries.
Yet when it all came together, when the 10th grader was able to find his place and his rhythm in Bell’s rotation, that’s when the magic started to happen.
For his part, Bell is not ready to commit to a time frame as to when Vujisic will be ready to play, saying only that he will not take part in the Heritage Woods and TBI events.
Instead, the season will open sans the big man, but with what is still a hugely talented group.
NEXT MAN UP… A TALENTED CORE REMAINS
Last season, the team called up one Grade 10 player to its senior varsity roster, and by the end of the campaign, that player — guard Justin Sunga — was playing like one of the best in the province.
“Justin has been a solid leader for every team he’s ever played on,” said Bell of his primary point guard. “It was more challenging for him at the start of last season. He was a little timid at first. He didn’t want to step on the Grade 12’s toes, but we pushed him to be the same kind of kid he was in Grade 8 and Grade 9 for his teams. And I can tell you, he is hungry for this.”
Guard Matt Pineda will play a huge role as an example-setting senior, and Bell, who compares him to a multi-purpose Swiss army knife notes that “last season he drew 26 charges, and the season before that, 28.”
There is also the return of big guard Emir Krupic back to the Rebels following a stint in the U.S.
“He is a dude that brings toughness to our team,” said Bell of Krupic, who played briefly for the Rebels last season but was later ruled ineligible upon his return from a U.S. prep school, forcing Burnaby South to forfeit a playoff win and endure a tougher path to qualify for the provincial tournament. “He’s a take-no-stuff kind of player who does so much of the dirty work… a bigger-bodied (6-foot-3) guard who creates a mismatch.”
Grade 11 guard Jareb Pineda, who last season led the Rebels to a 34-0 record and the B.C. junior varsity crown as the tourney MVP, brings his talents to the senior varsity as a true three-position guard type.
There are also two nice additions as Grade 10s from last season JV champs in Jimmy Zaborniak, a natural-scoring guard who can fill it up, and Karan Aujla, a sturdy 6-foot-5 post-type whose game continues to expand and whose burgeoning inside-out game makes him the player to watch in terms of building late-season chemistry with Vujisic.
“We just have the mentality of next man up, of more minutes available, of ‘prove what you can do,’” says Bell. “Last year a player like Justin came in and was able to expand his role, and now we have two more guys like that coming up as Grade 10s in Jimmy and Karan.”
Bell remembers back two seasons, when Vujisic, Sehic (SFU) and 2019 grad Aidan Wilson (Douglas College) all struggled to find themselves on the court at the same time.
And he sees how Aujla can take advantage of a big, early opportunity to get better prepared to eventually team with Vujisic.
“He has been making strides in his game in every practice,” Bell says of Aujla. “He’s stepping out with range on his shot now, too. He’ll give us the ability to play two bigs on the floor, and Sasha can shoot from the outside as well. You won’t be able to pack inside against us. It’s like when Jusuf and Sasha and Aidan, they didn’t get a chance to play together (early in 2017-18) and we’re finding that same scenario now.”
Can history repeat itself?
Only the 2019-20 season will tell.
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