BURNABY — For about as long as Martin Djunga can remember, he’s been surrounded by his basketball brothers, the ones he’s teammed with to help lift Burnaby’s Byrne Creek Secondary to its greatest athletic heights.
“These are the guys I grew up with,” the 6-foot-2 Bulldogs senior guard says of friends and teammates-to-be, the one that he first connected with at the age of seven on the local courts, just a year after he and his family arrived in the Edmonds’ neighbourhood from the Congo region of Africa.
On Thursday, Djunga and the rest of his fellow seniors will get to enjoy one of those ‘who knew’ moments when they take to the court for an 11:45 a.m. start in front of the school at the Byrne Creek Tip-Off Invitational (tourney draw below) against Vancouver’s Eric Hamber Griffins.
We say ‘Who knew’ because truly, who could have predicted that after landing on these shores a decade ago with no idea of what the sport of basketball even was, that Djunga would be a high school senior starring for B.C.’s No. 1-ranked AAA senior varsity team, and coming off MVP accolades following his 40-point performance in last Saturday’s victory over North Vancouver’s Argyle Pipers in the championship final of the prestigious St. Thomas More Chancellor Invitational.
So yeah, who knew?
THE SKY IS THE LIMIT
“He has unlimited athletic potential,” begins Bal Dhillon, his head coach at Byrne Creek. “Martin has grown a lot as a person over the last three years and he needs to continue to grow to achieve what he is capable of achieving.”
Read between the lines there and you have a caring coach and educator who doesn’t want one of his star pupils to settle for anything less than everything he is capable of achieving.
And when you watch Djunga play, all you do is agree with Dhillon because the talent is just bursting out, and it needs a chance to continue to grow at the university or collegiate level next season.
The best way to describe Djunga on the court?
He is an offensive threat both driving and shooting the basketball, but it seems that the faster the tempo is pushed, the better he gets at everything he does.
It was Djunga whose fourth-quarter fireworks enabled the Bulldogs to shake off North Delta in the Chancellor semifinals last Friday, and he was able to follow with another spectacular performance the next day in a game where the level of physicality tested the Bulldogs ability to execute under duress.
“He has improved a lot since last season,” says Dhillon of Djunga, who nonetheless was hard to miss when he poured home 30 points as the Bulldogs beat Steveston-London to capture the Lower Mainland AAA banner 11 months ago. “But I would say the biggest thing about him is that he has always played very instinctually. For him, I feel, it all starts on defence.”
Last season, that was very much the case, with Djunga generating 12 steals in a single game at the provincial tournament.
Over his senior season, he is averaging 22 points and five steals per game on a team filled with offensive difference-makers.
A BIG PIECE OF THE PUZZLE
Of course nothing is guaranteed, but Djunga, like the rest of his talented teammates, knows that the Chancellor victory can be the springboard to a successful second-half of the season and a bid to earn the highest possible seed into the provincial tournament draw this March.
“It feels good to start off (the second-half) with a tournament win like that,” Djunga said. “We had to fight hard and keep our composure and that’s what we did (against Argyle).”
Djunga, of course, is not the sole offensive focus of the Bulldogs.
Bithow Wan (forward), who scored 38 points in last season’s Lower Mainland championship final, and Sufi Ahmed (guard) are poised and experienced despite their Grade 11 stature. Fellow Grade 11 Titgol Jok and Grade 12 Tyril Whitebear are also playing substantial roles in the rotation.
And, of course, there is the presence at both ends of the floor of the team’s 6-foot-8 senior forward Majok Deng.
While Djunga has been spectacular of late, Dhillon is quick to point out that his team’s unique blend of complimentary skills have helped the entire group achieve whatever success they have found this season.
“For example,” begins Dhillon, “I think (Djunga) really benefits from having Majok there becasue he can pressure guards and if he does gamble on steal, Majok is there to protect the rim, and so is Tyril.”
If you follow the Bulldogs at their own tournament this weekend, one which features a 5 p.m. championship final this Saturday, you will see the expansive wingspan and lateral smarts of Deng, as well as the blue-collar work ethic and country-strong frame of Whitebear.
And, you’ll also see how point guard Ahmed and guard/forward Wan work together to facilitate the fortunes of the rest of the team.
“They are both good at distributing the ball and Bithow has taken on a bit of a different role this season,” continues Dhillon. “He getting guys baskets and not in a passive way. Plus, he loves our style of pressure (defence).”
And those friends, those basketball brothers that Martin Djunga spoke of off the top?
They are all of the above and more.
Watch the Bulldogs this weekend and try to remember if you have seen a team smiling more as they enter the gym, smiling more because they just love to play the game.
BYRNE CREEK TIP-OFF
11:45 a.m. — Byrne Creek vs. Eric Hamber
1:30 p.m. — Argyle vs. L.A. Matheson
3:15 p.m. — Richmond vs. Burnaby North
5 p.m. — Rick Hansen vs. Langley
3:15 p.m. — Top half draw winners
5 p.m. — Bottom half draw winners
3 p.m. — Third place
5 p.m. — Championship final
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