Noie: Notre Dame freshmen J.R. Konieczny, Blake Wesley leave Indiana All-Star impression

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Former Riley High School standout Blake Wesley, left, and J.R. Konieczny of South Bend Saint Joseph spent their final days before reporting to Notre Dame as teammates with the Indiana High School All-Stars.

For four days over the first full week of June, Carmel High School boys basketball coach Ryan Osborn watched former Riley standout Blake Wesley work.

It didn’t matter if it was a practice in a sweltering auxiliary gym on the campus of Marian University in Indianapolis or an old arena in Owensboro, Ky. One of 14 Indiana High School Senior All-Stars, Wesley brought a consistent effort to just about everything, be it a drill, a scrimmage or actual game against their prep star rivals from Kentucky.

Wesley just kept going, which left Osborn to wonder if the kid’s energy tank ever neared empty. For those four days, be it practices or shoot-arounds or games, it seemingly never did.

“I don’t think he gets tired,” Osborn said Tuesday afternoon during a break in summer basketball camp at Carmel. “He doesn’t play like he gets tired. He really got after it in practice.”

Got after it in a way and in an area that will make Notre Dame men’s basketball fans hope that Wesley can do the same around Purcell Pavilion when the 2021-22 college basketball season starts. An area that Wesley excelled in during scrimmages and practices and games is an area where the Irish seriously lacked last season. There was a reason why Wesley was among the team leaders in minutes played over three exhibitions – one against the state’s top juniors and two against the Kentucky All-Stars. Wesley played a little more than a lot of his senior colleagues because he did something others didn’t always do – he got in a stance and guarded.

That’s blasphemy in any all-star setting.

“He can defend all day,” Osborn said. “He’s not a guy who works really hard on the offensive end and then comes down and takes time off on the other end.”

Even before Wesley stepped on the Notre Dame campus this week for summer school, the Irish perimeter was pretty stacked. You know who the starting guys will be. You know who the reserve guys will be. Wesley will fit and should fit because of what he can offer on defense. With a lanky 6-foot-5, 180-pound frame, Wesley can guard, but he can also play the passing lanes and make it uncomfortable for other ball handlers. He can muster some steals (2.5 per game last season), an area the Irish finished last in the Atlantic Coast Conference last season (4.27). He can rebound (6.1 per game). He can play.

Want more proof? Osborn offers some with a snapshot from a timeout during the exhibition against the Indiana Junior All-Stars. A couple of the young guys started rolling in a game where defense (final score, Seniors 127, Juniors 106) was optional. Osborn gathered his group and asked if anybody wanted to guard.

If anybody does, please speak up.

Wesley spoke.

“He was the first to say, ‘Coach, I’ve got him,’” Osborn said. “He’s got that tough-guy mentality. There’s not anything he’s not willing to do.”

That willingness carried into the two games against Kentucky. When Osborn needed someone to check Bellarmine-bound Ben Johnson, Wesley got the first and often second and third call on Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball. Both nights. Both were Indiana wins.

“Ben didn’t have a great game either night,” Osborn said. “A lot of that is attributed to Blake guarding him.”

Wesley averaged 16.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 23.3 minutes for the All-Stars. In the coming months, his role and minutes likely will be dictated by defense. Notre Dame has plenty of guys who can score it, but not many who will stay in a stance and embrace the tough stuff. If Wesley does that, Wesley’s going to play. He just is.

“The one thing I do know is he’s coachable,” Osborn said. “He’s got a great attitude. He’s super-athletic. He’s going to be around players that are going to make him better.

“He’s immediate in my book.”

Playing time was tough for J.R. Konieczny to corner last week, but that didn't stop him from showing off skills that should translate to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Managing minutes a tough task

It’s hard to be immediate during high school all-star games, especially when you have 14 players who are used to getting plenty of shots and minute and opportunities. It was Osborn’s job to balance everything and keep as many guys as possible happy. It’s an impossible task. It just is. Not because guys are selfish so much as they’re being asked to play roles that they’ve not played in forever. Sometimes, never. Fewer minutes. Fewer shots. Fewer opportunities. Everyone wants to play. Everyone can play.

“It’s difficult,” Osborn said. “Some of the guys who played eight to 10 minutes on this year’s team maybe could have started on some of the other teams.”

Case in point was Wesley’s fellow Notre Dame teammate in former South Bend Saint Joseph standout J.R. Konieczny. While Wesley worked as a main guy, Konieczny was a complementary piece, a reserve who struggled in his role. Konieczny averaged 2.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 9.6 minutes over the three games. It was a tough adjustment for someone who wrapped his prep career the all-time leading scorer in Saint Joseph County history (1,996 points).

Still, the 6-7, 192-pound Konieczny showed Osborn something in not going off for big numbers or playing a large role. The way he carried himself during the week might’ve been even more impressive than had he erupted for 40 one night.

“With J.R., it wasn’t going great for him,” Osborn said. “But you talk with him off to the side and he’s totally respectful, totally confident. Anyone going to Notre Dame with (an all-star) coach they don’t know could easily have an attitude or be negative or be uncoachable, but that wasn’t him.

“He was as positive as anybody.”

Osborn might not have seen Konieczny’s game in an actual game, but he saw enough in practice/shoot-around situations to see why he’s headed for the ACC.

“He’s a kid who just goes and plays,” Osborn said. “He can score. He can shoot it in bunches. His athleticism is through the roof. His potential is super high.

“He’s going to be special, too.”

Konieczny and Wesley could’ve been excused had their minds not been all there during the exhibition weekend. It was a whirlwind for them. They scrimmaged the Indiana Juniors on a Thursday. They played in Owensboro on a Friday and returned to Indianapolis around 4 a.m. They played Saturday evening at Southport High School. When that one ended, the local duo ceased being high school kids.

Blake Wesley averaged nearly 23 minutes over three exhibition games last week for the Indiana All-Stars. He played a lot, in part, because of his willingness to defend.

On Sunday, Konieczny and Wesley moved into Siegfried Hall, where they’re roommates for summer school, which started Monday. A lot was on their plates during the week, but Osborn didn’t think either was affected by it.

“They’re both super-good guys,” he said. “They’re the type of guys where if you pull them off to the side and you’re coaching them, they’ll look you in the eye, stand straight up, have good body language.

“They’re going to be really good players, but they’re really good people.”

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI