Noie: Former area prep standouts J.R. Konieczny, Blake Wesley learning college hoops life

Tom Noie
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND – Soft and hazy, the sunrise peeked over a tree line on the edge of campus Tuesday morning as a former South Bend high school standout wheeled his electric scooter up to Rolfs Hall, the Notre Dame men’s basketball program’s stand-alone practice facility.

Minutes later, another former South Bend area high school basketball standout — once a rival of but now summer roommate to the previous guy to arrive — steered his scooter through the building lobby. He rode over from Siegfried Hall shirtless on the 62-degree morning, his upper body covered only by the backpack needed for that day’s academic commitments.

But first, an 80-minute practice as members of the Irish men’s basketball team.

Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey during practice Tuesday, July 20, 2021 inside Rolfs Hall on campus at Notre Dame.

Had this workout been held a mile down the road at South Bend Saint Joseph High School, former Indians guard J.R. Konieczny, the first of the roommates to arrive, would’ve dominated the ball for much of the session. He would have scored and passed and rebounded and basically done as he pleased, much like he did last winter when he averaged 28.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists.

Had the practice unfolded further down the road at Riley High School, fellow guard Blake Wesley would’ve worked much in the same manner. He’d dominate the ball, score it often, find the right guys at the right time and generally be the best player on the Oldham Gym court from start to finish like last year when he went for 27.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.5 steals.

But that was then, which now seems long ago. Konieczny and Wesley are college freshmen trying to find their way at Notre Dame. And figure out where they fit. Hint: they do.

Still, that means listening to everything coach Mike Brey and his staff and teammates have to say. Understanding the drills, then executing. They might not take a shot for four or five possessions, which was unheard of in high school. They absolutely better box out and defend and not put themselves or their teammates in trying circumstances. They’re learning more about big-time college basketball life every day.

There were times Tuesday when they looked like freshmen. Like when Konieczny pulled up from the free throw line and fired … an airball. He joked later that the muscles in his arms are still adjusting to the training demands of college athletes, and that his upper body is sometimes still so sore from weight room sessions with strength and conditioning coach Tony Rolinski that it affects his stroke.

During one transition scrimmage sequence, Wesley drew some Brey praise when on ball reversal, he spotted Yale graduate transfer Paul Atkinson in the low post mismatched against an overmatched defender. Wesley lobbed to Atkinson, who converted the easiest of buckets.

“Way to see the game, B,” Brey said.

Yet this is how the game changes from the high school to college level. Do something well one time down the floor and it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work the next. Sure enough, Wesley tried the lob to Atkinson on the next possession, but it produced only a steal/turnover.

Konieczny and Wesley looked a lot like freshmen in what amounts to practice No. 9 in their college careers. Yet there also were times when they looked like a veteran pair of guards that carry a confidence that they both will help this season. And they will.

They’ll help by not having to do all they did for their high school teams last season. A year ago, if Konieczny wasn’t getting 20 a night, Saint Joe likely wasn’t winning. If Wesley wasn’t handling the ball for all 32 minutes, it was going to be tough for Riley.

Notre Dame freshman guard J.R. Konieczny finishes in traffic during Tuesday's practice at Rolfs Hall.

They’re now just a couple of the guys, instead of being THE guys. It’s different. It’s nice.

“You’re working your butt off as hard as you can every single time down the floor,” Konieczny said. “You have to lock in. I’m finding my way out here, finding where they need me, just working every single day.”

► Noie:How about a ring, then the Ring for Pat Connaughton?

► Noie:A conversation with Jack Swarbrick, Part Two

► Noie:A conversation with Jack Swarbrick, Part One

Two good guards

In Konieczny and Wesley, Brey has two Michiana natives/freshmen on his roster for the first time since 2013 when former Marian standout Demetrius Jackson and Penn product Austin Torres were newbies. These two already may be ahead of those two.

"They really know how to play," said Brey, who never could watch them play in person last winter because of pandemic protocols. "They are quick learners and love to play and love to compete. They have put a nice pressure on the old perimeter guys.

"We didn't quite have that last year."

Konieczny still can't believe that he can go and work on his game whenever he wants. The first week of school, he was in Rolfs for three nights in a row until 1 a.m. Just him and his music and the hoops. Pretty good deal.

“I was in here just chilling,” he said. “It’s crazy. It felt great finally being here.”

Wesley often gets extra shots up with associate head coach Anthony Solomon. At Riley, there were times when Wesley fell into bad habits with his jumper. He’d be textbook right one time, then fade the next. Now it’s about balance. About routine. About not taking stuff for granted, which he sometimes did last winter.

“In college, that’s not going to fly,” Wesley said.

Both may be a 15-minute ride from their homes, but Wesley treats that like its 15 hours. He doesn’t want to flee for family each time he feels homesick or wants a comforting meal. This is college life, so live it. He was counseled that it wouldn’t be easy. Wesley didn’t realize that until he arrived in mid-June.

“When I first walked in here, I was not comfortable at all,” he said. “Then you get into a routine and get comfortable. Playing with the guys is good for me.”

So is understanding that it can’t just be about basketball. Wesley recently had to miss one condition session (he’s added six pounds since he arrived and weighs 186) to write an essay for a summer class.

Notre Dame freshman guard Blake Wesley embraces everything about being in college - including being away from home where he has to learn about life.

“School comes first,” he said.

Both are taking two summer classes. Konieczny has anthropology and English/Shakespeare. Wesley’s are anthropology and astronomy. Both admitted that in terms of being roommates, Wesley is livelier of the two. No word on who’s neater. Or messier.

“J.R. does not have the energy,” Wesley said. “I keep him up on the weekends. It’s fun.”

While so much has changed for the both of them, there were times Tuesday when it looked like they were both back at their respective high schools playing a Northern Indiana Conference game. The two spent a lot of time on the same blue (reserve) squad, yet also were opposites. One time, with Wesley on defense, Konieczny weaved his way down the lane, out to the perimeter and across a few screens. Lost in transition, the 6-foot-5 Wesley, wearing an old Nik Djogo practice jersey, closed too late while the 6-7 Konieczny, wearing an old John Mooney tank top, drained a 3. Wesley connected on corner 3s and served as a secondary ball handler with equal effectiveness.

“They just know how to play,” said senior guard Prentiss Hubb. “They’re hungry and ready to get after it. This is their city. They want to make a name for themselves in their hometowns and that their names are going to be remembered.”

With Tuesday’s practice and media obligations over, both showered, dressed and left separately on their scooters across the campus. Just another day for a pair of college freshmen living and learning about college life as they go.

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