Had the coronavirus pandemic not shuttered Ivy League athletics for 2020-21, the plan for Yale power forward Paul Atkinson would’ve stayed in place.
The 6-foot-10, 220-pound Atkinson would play his final year of college basketball, finish his final year of education, graduate in the spring with a degree in economics and see what the next chapter of his life would entail.
When the Ivies decided in early November not to play basketball this season, Atkinson believed he’d be better off finishing up his studies, then playing one season as a graduate transfer elsewhere. His first choice would’ve been to remain at Yale for next season, but Ivy League schools do not allow graduate students to participate.
Late Sunday, Atkinson decided that elsewhere would be at Notre Dame. After announcing plans in November to transfer, he chose Notre Dame over the likes of North Carolina State, Iowa, Miami (Fla.) and Texas. Like current Irish junior guard Trey Wertz and freshman guard Tony Sanders, Atkinson committed to Notre Dame without ever seeing campus or meeting with the coaching staff in person.
“A lot of crazy things happening,” Atkinson said late Sunday from his home in West Palm Beach, Fla. “Notre Dame was on my radar pretty early on, four or five days after I was in the transfer portal. I wouldn’t have entered the portal if I could’ve finished my career at Yale.”
Atkinson spent the last six weeks getting to know more about Irish coach Mike Brey and his program through Zoom calls.
“They have a lot of good guards,” he said. “They need someone to come in and try and fill (the big-man) spot. I’m hoping to be that guy.”
The next time Atkinson is on the Notre Dame campus will be the first time.
“I’ve only see pictures and videos,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
Atkinson will finish his final semester at Yale, which starts Feb. 1, then arrive at Notre Dame in June (hopefully) as the program’s first graduate transfer. That brings with it immediate eligibility. He’s currently at home in Florida where he stays in basketball shape by working out at his high school (Westminster Academy). He’ll return to his apartment in New Haven, Conn., for the spring semester, which will be all on-line.
Next step after that, the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“I’m excited,” Atkinson said. “There’s a lot of big bodies. It might be more challenging day in and day out than the Ivy League, but I’m ready to accept that. I’m prepared for it.”
The Ivy’s co-player of the year last season after averaging 17.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.2 steals, Atkinson set a Yale record by scoring double figures in all 30 games as a junior. The Bulldogs finished 23-7 overall, 11-3 and first place in the Ivy.
Atkinson was Blue Ribbon Basketball’s 2020-21 preseason Ivy League player of the year. This season was supposed to be his second season as a full-time starter. The Bulldogs won 16, 22 and 23 games in his first three seasons.
Atkinson fills an immediate low-post need at Notre Dame, still an undersized team by ACC standards. Power forward Juwan Durham is a graduate student this season for the Irish. Though the NCAA ruled that every player regardless of class status will receive an additional year of eligibility next season, it’s unlikely Durham, a Connecticut transfer, would return for a sixth season.
Even if he does, the Irish still need to get bigger and older. They’ll do both with Atkinson, who also offers Brey shot-making ability from the low block. Atkinson has shot .692, .697 and .630 percent from the field his first three seasons.
“It’s just confidence,” Atkinson said. “When somebody passes me the ball and I go up to score, I’m ready to make the shot. When I get out there, I want to shoot confidently and take a high percentage shot that has a good chance of going in.”
Atkinson joins a recruiting class that includes South Bend natives J.R. Konieczny (Saint Joseph) and Blake Wesley (Riley). Wesley’s a projected combo guard and Konieczny a small forward.
Durham and Nik Djogo are graduate seniors on this year’s team. The roster carries no traditional senior.
Brey still could add one potential prospect — either a late-rising high school senior, a traditional transfer or another grad transfer — to next season’s team. No Durham and no Djogo returning and the additions of Atkinson, Konieczny and Wesley would give the Irish 12 scholarship players for 2021-22.