Notre Dame basketball: Stellar summer has Cooley waiting for call

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

Waiting for word on his basketball future has left former Notre Dame power forward Jack Cooley with two options — work out seemingly morning, noon and night or wear out the latest video game.

Cooley can only make so many shots or rack up so much of another high score before boredom returns to his parents’ home in suburban Chicago. It’s during those moments, which now arrive almost daily, that leave Cooley wishing life had a more definitive direction.

“I’ve been so bored laying around,” Cooley said by phone Monday evening from Glenview, Ill. “I don’t have any school work anymore, so I can just kick back, (but) you can only work out for so long before you’ve got to stop.”

Cooley has no one to blame but himself — and in the best of ways — for the employment predicament. An undrafted free agent after a senior season in which he was the only Big East player to average double figures for points (13.1) and rebounds (10.1), Cooley completed a successful 10-day run in the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League earlier this month with the Memphis Grizzlies.

It would have been easier had Cooley looked lost, overwhelmed and unsure of his place in the quicker, more physical game. He could have chalked it up to having gained valuable experience at the game’s highest level. With only one real option, he would have headed for his pick of spots overseas. There, he would season his game for a second NBA chance next summer.

But Cooley’s work in Sin City took his game to a crossroads — the NBA now could be a legitimate option.

As August nears, agent Adam Pensack is waiting for as many as six NBA teams to decide whether to extend an invitation to Cooley to training camp. If nothing materializes there, Cooley has some “off-the-chart” offers in Europe.

“I’m just happy to play basketball for a living,” he said. “It’s pretty incredible.”

Cooley may know something within the next week, two tops. Until then, days pass like years, especially since most of his friends from home are away doing what Cooley wants to do — earning a living.

“I wish life was as simple as it was in college,” Cooley said. “It’s pretty frustrating. It’s not like wondering where in this country I’m going to be, but it’s where in the world am I going to be?

“It’s a little more complicated.”

Cooley made it look simple in the desert. He displayed much of the drive that allowed him to come from seemingly nowhere midway through his collegiate career to earn Big East most improved player as a junior and first team all-league honors as a senior.

After a warm-up/cup of coffee of sorts earlier in the month with the Houston Rockets in the Orlando Summer League, Cooley settled into his rebounding/hard-working ways with the Grizzlies during the 22-team Vegas summer showcase.

Able to get an extended look after a cameo in Florida (he averaged a solid 7.0 points, 7.7 rebounds in 15.7 minutes backing up former Kentucky standout Terrence Jones), the 6-foot-9, 246-pound Cooley averaged a team-high 15.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 0.7 assists and 0.7 steals in 30.3 minutes (he played 29.3 as a senior). He shot 52.7 percent from the field, 23.1 percent from 3 and 69.2 percent from the free throw line.

He did it against the summer’s best. Starting every game while playing six in seven days meant Cooley often was matched against first-round draft picks. He hung 16 points and 10 rebounds on Charlotte’s Cody Zeller, the fourth pick of the June draft.

“I feel as if I went out there and proved I can play with the best of them,” he said. “What I did out there should stand up and eliminate any questions that teams had.”

Those questions — can he move his feet, guard and make a perimeter shot? — forced Cooley to watch nearly five hours of NBA draft coverage June 27 without hearing his named called. It failed to curb Cooley’s belief that he has a place in the Association.

“It was frustrating to see players I know I’m better than get drafted,” Cooley said. “But I knew my chance would come. I couldn’t let it get me down and had to use it to play better in summer league.”

Cooley played a different game than the one Irish fans watched the previous two years. For a majority of his time Notre Dame operated in a four-around-one system — four perimeter players around main low-post player (Cooley). In the NBA, the floor is spread with shooters who have skills and size. That allowed Cooley to stray from the post and even take (and make) the occasional 3-pointer. He was more of a stretch-4 (power forward/shooter), than low-post grinder.

He liked it.

“It opens up my game,” he said. “I can just play basketball.”

Playing in Vegas also saw Cooley share the same floor with former Irish All-American Luke Harangody, a player he was often mistakenly for early in his collegiate career. Cooley scored 13 points with seven rebounds July 19 against the Denver Nuggets. Harangody, looking to resurrect his NBA career as a free agent, finished with 17 points and three rebounds.

Already in the game when Harangody checked in, Cooley yelled to the Memphis bench wondering who he should guard. There was no question for Grizzlies summer league coach and former NBA big man Bob Thornton.

“It was pretty funny,” Cooley said. “I looked at my coach and asked him, ‘Who do I have?’ he was like, ‘You already know who you’ve got.’ He’s like, ‘This is what everyone was waiting for.’

“I was like, ‘Oh, God.’”

Cooley finished Vegas with three double-doubles — a statistical staple during his final two years at Notre Dame. Those numbers peaked with a 20-point, 12-rebound effort in 30 minutes in a 90-83 victory July 17 over Washington.

Cooley closed his career with 32 double-doubles, including 19 as a senior. He hit for at least 10 points and 10 rebounds only once in his final nine games, but his void in the Irish lineup this winter will be felt more than just on the stat sheet.

“The energy that he played with was contagious to his teammates,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “He energized our building with how he played. Who does that for us?”

More pressing for Cooley now is where does he do it?

Answers will arrive soon enough.

Former Notre Dame star Jack Cooley has shown some new facets to his game this summer.