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New era of De La Salle hoops off to hot start under first-year coach

By: SCOTT M. BURNSTEIN, February 19, 2021, 12:21 pm

Watch out Metro Detroit prep hoops fans, Warren De Salle is poised to play sleeper in the Catholic League. 

Spoiler might be more like it at this moment. The gritty-as-always Pilots are 5-0 out of the gate on the season, fresh off a convincing 59-42 upset win over Birmingham Brother Rice on the road last Saturday night, followed by wins over Detroit Renaissance and Birmingham Detroit Country Day by 42 and 39 points. 

This winter, the Catholic League’s storied Central Division is as talent-rich and top-to-bottom competitive as it’s been in years. During the preseason, pundits picked De La Salle near the bottom of the pack. 

Hall of Fame coach Greg Esler retired in the spring and handed the reins to the program to an outsider and a near-unknown in Jon Djokaj. The bespectacled and spirited 39-year old Djokaj, comes from the lower-key Lakes Valley Conference, where he was coaching Walled Lake Northern the past three seasons.

The Djokaj hire appears to be a home run. De La Salle looks deeper and considerably more dangerous than expected.

“There’s been tremendous buy-in from this team from the second I walked through the door at De La Salle,” Djokaj said. “We have great guards, we’re spacing well on the floor and we’ve shown what I think has been some very underrated depth.”

Linden Holder, the Pilots’ All-CHSL senior point guard and team captain, is letting everyone know he’s one of the most undervalued floor generals in the state with his play the first week of the 2021 campaign. Holder (6-foot-1) scorched a bigger, more athletic and more highly-touted Brother Rice backcourt for 26 points, six assists and four steals in the stat sheet Saturday.

“We all fell in love with coach Djokaj right off the bat,” Holder said. “Coach Esler might be gone, but this program is still a family. We have a vibe with the new staff, we’re in a groove. I think we turned the corner (with the transition from Esler to Djokaj) before school even started. These seeds were planted pretty fast. We haven’t really done anything yet though other than put together a good start. So it’s on us, to stay focused, keep working and build momentum. The wind is at our back now.” 

Holder was playmaking and creating inside the lane, out on transition and from downtown. His traditional three-point play, finishing at the rack through contact, tipped off the fourth quarter against Brother Rice (2-1) and gave De La Salle its first double-digit lead of the night at 41-31. Holder’s NBA-range 3-pointer from the right elbow with 3:35 left was the dagger.

Junior combo guard Caleb Reese (5-10), in his third year on varsity, can be just as deadly to opponents as Holder can. He scored 16 points in the second half Saturday, including a 90-second span midway through the fourth quarter where he put in eight straight points to pump the Pilots advantage into double digits for good. 

“We’re selfless, we all want to spread the ball around,” Reese said. “I can feel this team getting locked in. We play with intensity and we can’t let up.” 

De La Salle’s front court is a nice mix of young and old, with fiery 6-foot-4 sophomore wing Triston Nichols highlighting the group. Fellow sophomore Mike Sulaka (6-7) is improving at a rapid clip and gives the Pilots’ key minutes off the bench. 

Defensive stopper and floor-burn specialist Bryan Schneider (6-5 Sr.) patrols the post for the Pilots. Schneider and Nichols combined to hold Brother Rice sophomore sensation Curtis Williams (No. 1 recruit at small forward in the state’s Class of ’23) to eight points Saturday. They both played on the De La Salle football team that advanced into the Division 2 state championship game last month.

“We kind of took that attack mode from the football field and fused it into what we’re doing on the basketball court,” Nichols said. “We’re taught to make the extra pass, communicate, be aggressive, but be smart in how we play. That’s what coach Esler instilled in us and that’s what coach Djokaj preaches. He’s everything you want in a coach, he challenges us and he pushes us to be our best. We hit the floor ready to battle, ready to fight every game. That’s De La Salle basketball no matter who the coach is.”