Noie: Time for the Ring of Honor if ex-Notre Dame star Pat Connaughton wins an NBA ring

Tom Noie
ND Insider

Scrap those stale storylines and trash the retread talking points about former Notre Dame men’s basketball player Pat Connaughton.

Nothing heard before about the former Irish small forward applies to where he or his game currently reside. Mainly, on the brink of winning an NBA championship.

Like the time when Connaughton was fighting to get though the league’s front door and registered a 44-inch vertical leap at the NBA combine in the spring of 2015. At the time, it was the second-highest score in combine history. But because it was done by a 6-foot-5 guy — OK, honestly, done by a 6-5 white guy — Connaughton was tagged with the label of “deceptively athletic.” Did anyone not see his block at the end of regulation of the 2015 NCAA tournament game against Butler? His drive and two-hand dunk against Kentucky in the Elite Eight?

Milwaukee Bucks' guard Pat Connaughton (26), a former star at Notre Dame, rises up for a rebound against the Phoenix Suns during Game 5 of the 2021 NBA Finals at Phoenix Suns Arena Sunday. One win away from a title, Connaughton is showing that he belongs in the NBA.

That deceptive label shadowed Connaughton into the draft, when he was a second round pick by Brooklyn and then traded to Portland. First couple years in, Connaughton was an end-of the bench/rotation/hype guy. On those rare occasions where he might earn some run at the end of quarters or halves or games, that stale storyline often arose. It was one that informed viewers of how Connaughton was a fourth-round pick in the 2014 Major League Baseball draft by the Baltimore Orioles and that pitching professionally might someday be in his future. When Connaughton would make a shot or grab a rebound or do something of note, the refrain “not bad for a baseball guy” often followed.

Former Notre Dame standout Pat Connaughton has been a key reason why the Milwaukee Bucks are one win from an NBA championship.

Except he’s not. Not after six seasons in the league, including the last three with Milwaukee. A lot has been said about the 28-year-old Connaughton since he left Notre Dame after steering the program to an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship and nearly into the Final Four. Not enough has been said about who he is.

A true pro. A basketball player.

He’s not deceptively athletic. He’s not a baseball player masquerading in shorts and sneakers. He's not a happy-to-be-there guy. He’s a bona-fide NBA guy, something that too few saw coming, but more should have.

Those who know Connaughton, know of his drive and his determination, know of his fight and focus, know that this was where it likely all was going. Not many bet on him for basketball, so he just bet on himself. Connaughton could’ve taken the $428,000 that the Orioles gave him as a signing bonus in 2014 and run to the nearest minor-league affiliate to begin his pro baseball clock.

That would’ve been the safe and easy way out, but for Connaughton, it’s never about safe and easy. It’s about the grind, about overcoming the odds and handling the hard stuff and then making it all look easy.

There are guys with more natural talent not in the NBA. There are guys who made more money not in the NBA. Then there’s Connaughton, who just works. Every day is another to prove himself.

He’s still proving himself. After every big playoff win over the last two months, be it a series or a game, Connaughton responds to a check-in/congratulatory text in true Connaughton style – “More work to do.”

He often said during his time at Notre Dame that when it came time to play, it was time for the shark to eat.

The shark’s eaten. A lot.

A former second round NBA draft pick, former Notre Dame standout Pat Connaughton waited for and worked toward the role he's playing now for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Stuffing the Finals stats sheet

Heading into Tuesday’s Game 6, which could decide the series, Connaughton is averaging 11 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 31.4 minutes in the finals. Those boat-race his career stats of 6.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 14.4 minutes.

Watch the Finals and you lose track of how many possessions Connaughton keeps alive with hard work and hustle. A tipped rebound out there, a save of a ball headed out of bounds there. Knowing when and where to move the ball and to what shooter in the right spot. Oh, and a career 35.3 percent shooter from 3 is hitting 50 percent (15-for-30) from 3 in the series.

Defensively, there are times when he gets cooked, but he comes back for more. Always battling. Always believing. At night’s end, he’s gone for 14 and seven or 11, nine and one or another 14 and six like in Saturday’s critical Game 5 win.

Connaughton’s a basketball player. Always has been. Everyone’s just finally starting to see it.

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Four quarters from now — 48 more minutes — Connaughton may become the first former Notre Dame player to win an NBA championship in 28 years. Not since 1993 when former guard John Paxson helped the Chicago Bulls three-peat — ironically, also against Phoenix and in a Game 6 — has a former Irish won a ring.

Which brings us to this about the only former Notre Dame player currently in the NBA — it’s time for the alma mater to recognize him. Really recognize him. At Purcell Pavilion. This college basketball season. Ideally, with the Bucks in town.

Say Milwaukee wins its first NBA championship in 50 years sometime late Tuesday. Early Wednesday, somebody in Notre Dame marketing or promotions or whatever department, is responsible should put a plan in motion. Call the Bucks (understandable if they win that nobody answers). Call the NBA. Bring the Bucks to the Bend for an exhibition game before the 2021-22 season starts Oct. 19.

Have the league find an opponent for them. Say the Bulls or the Pacers or the Pistons. Doesn‘t matter. Sell the joint out. Then at halftime, recognize Connaughton by sending his name and his number and his white and gold and blue banner into the rafters as the newest member of the program’s Ring of Honor.

A few former Irish — Pat Garrity, LaPhonso Ellis, Chris Thomas — have been in line for Ring honors longer than Connaughton. But any order to anything associated with that recognition was blown up the minute Luke Harangody jumped everyone as the first member of the Ring of Honor in 2010. Nobody should have gone in ahead of Austin Carr or ahead of Adrian Dantley. Ever. Both it happened. Can’t undo it now.

Former Notre Dame small forward Pat Connaughton is a true team guy in his sixth NBA season.

Ring of Honor ceremonies often are reserved for league games with early afternoon starts in January or February, but the scheduling stars would have to align. The Irish would have to be home and the Bucks would have to be on the all-star break to bring Connaughton back in the middle of winter.

He's eventually going to go in, so do it in October. The night before the Oct. 2 home football game against Cincinnati would be electric. You’d get a chance to thank one of the program greats for all he did in an Irish uniform, and all he’s doing now.

Get going, Notre Dame. Make some calls. Make some plans. Make it happen.

It all fits for Connaughton, finishing the first year of a three-year deal that he signed last offseason for $16 million. That’s a sweet bag, but it looks like the Bucks got a bargain given all Connaughton has done this postseason.

He’s not THE reason the Bucks are on the verge of a title, but he’s A reason.

Nothing less expected from a basketball guy.

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