While experience might be an issue for the Brainerd Warriors, team chemistry will not be.
Warriors head coach Charlie Schoeck is both impressed and happy with how his players came together as a team during the offseason, worked around COVID-19 restrictions and became a cohesive unit.
“The biggest (asset), and often overlooked aspect, is the chemistry of these guys,” Schoeck said. “On and off the court this is a really tight-knit group of guys. That can make a huge difference over a season, which can be a grind at times, but when these guys are buddies and enjoy being around each other that certainly helps.”
The Warriors will need something to combat major losses because of graduation as well as the possible season-ending injury to Cam Engholm. Brainerd graduated its top three scorers.
That leaves senior forward Griffin Rushin as the only player returning who averaged double figures in points. The 6-foot-7 wing averaged 11.5 points a game last year to go with 127 rebounds, 35 assists, 14 steals, and 10 blocks.
“He just has an increased confidence is going to be a big part of his game,” Schoeck said. “He’s really rounded out his game. The last couple of years he’s been more of just a spot-up shooter, but now his game off the dribble is better, too. His offensive game is just a lot more well-rounded. I honestly think he’s probably one of the best natural scorers we’ve had here. He’s along the lines of Joey Sauer and Michael Russell in terms of just a natural scorer.”
Rushin signed to play basketball next season at St. John’s University in Collegeville. Last year, he shot 46% from the field, 31% from 3-point and 67% from the line.
“I think there will be some other guys in the fold who we can rely on from a perimeter scoring standpoint,” Schoeck said. “If he’s not seeing that shot fall from the perimeter, he can drive and we’ll also look for some post-up opportunities as well. He’s not going to be so reliant on that outside shot. If that’s not falling, we’ll find other ways to get his confidence going.”
With Engholm on the injured reserve, junior Mitchell Degen will tackle the paint responsibilities. Last year, Degen played in eight varsity games and averaged 1.1 points. At 6-4, he’ll be one of the taller players on the Warriors’ roster.
“Mitchell Degen is a real smart player. He’s very cerebral with a high basketball IQ. He can kind of do a little bit of everything and with the absence of Cam, his ability to guard some bigs from the other team is going to be big. Much like Max, he’s a vocal leader and he can do a little bit of everything. He can shoot and score from the post, but what I think is his most valuable offensive skill is his passing. He has great vision.”
Senior captain Max Lelwica returns. The 6-2 forward came off the bench last season to average 2.2 points a game. He added 69 rebounds, 37 assists and eight steals.
“He always brings physicality, athleticism and intensity,” Schoeck said. “He’s the definition of a team-first guy and a leader both vocally and by example. He is the guy who will do whatever it takes to win the game. If that means guarding a point guard or guarding a center he will do that, both from a skill perspective and a size perspective.
“If it’s taking a backseat and distributing the ball and letting other guys get theirs, he will do what it takes to win.
“He is a great team guy and a great guy to have as our captain.”
Cooper Jacobs will probably be the starting point guard. The junior is similar to former Warrior point guard Mason Malone, said Schoeck.
“His court vision is as good as we’ve had,” Schoeck added. “His passing is terrific and his shot has continued to improve every year. He’s a lot more dangerous from the perimeter than he was a couple years back.
“He’s extremely tough to keep out of the lane. He gets in there and is able to draw some defenders. Even last year when he was more of a scout team, junior varsity guy, those varsity guys had a hard time keeping him out of the middle.”
One of those players looking to take some of the scoring pressure off of Rushin is senior guard Logen Roberts.
“He’s got a good understanding of both offense and defense. His positioning on defense, his on-ball defense is really good,” Schoeck said. “He’s a guy from the perimeter where if he gets hot he can make three or four 3s in a row. He’s got great shooting form and great ability and range.”
Schoeck will start with a seven- to eight-man rotation and will rely heavily on his seniors to begin the season.
“Jacob Schommer is a guy who can do a little bit of everything,” Schoeck said. “He can guard positions 1-4. He’s a hustle guy and will give you everything he’s got. He’ll be getting floor burns. Plus, he can attack the rim very well. That’s kind of his game, but his shot has improved.
“Brandon Johnson is another guy along with Jackson Bluth. Those are guys who are very athletic and getting out in transition. That core of seven to eight guys is who I expect to be contributing early this season.”
Lack of height will force the Warriors into an up-tempo style of basketball. Schoeck believes his players have the speed and depth to excel in this format.
“I think the intensity and the speed we can play with will be a key for us this year. One thing we’re really concentrating on is winning the transition battle. We’re going to be at our best when we’re getting the ball up and pitching it ahead quickly and trying to get some looks before the defense is set.
“Conversely, we want to make sure we’re limiting what the other team can get in transition. I think that’s such a crucial part of the game, but I really like the intensity and focus that these guys have. We have high basketball IQs all the way around. That will allow us to read and react a little bit more and keep the tempo fast.”
The transition game was one area that hurt the Warriors last year. But Schoeck isn’t worried about the identity or the willingness of his players to get better. He saw first hand the lengths they would go to improve team and individual play.
“It speaks volumes to what these guys want to achieve and it’s not individual goals,” Schoeck said. “We do a little exercise before each season and ask the goals of these guys and the majority of them the goal for them is to get better each day. That’s what they want to do. They embrace the process. They know the results aren’t instant and they’re willing to put in the work day in and day out to get better. That’s an attitude I like to see and hopefully be the end of the year we’re a very dangerous team.”
JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at 218-855-5856 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jeremymillsop.
2020-21 Boys Basketball
Head coach: Charlie Schoeck, 3rd year
2018-19 record: CLC: 8-8, Overall: 9-16
Career record: 24-28
Returning starters: Griffin Rushin
Captains: Mitchell Degen, Rushin, Max Lelwica
Assistant coaches: Brian Gustafson, Grant Gmeinder, Derek Hendrickson, Kyle Crocker, McKinley Anderson