Now's the time for Notre Dame's Zach Auguste

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Growing up and slowing down just may pay off this season for Notre Dame junior power forward Zach Auguste.

In his first two years with the Irish, Auguste often was in a hurry with about every aspect of the game. He played fast on the court; he talked quickly off it. He so wanted to play a key role that it left him all wound up and running in circles, not sure where he fit.

As a freshman, preseason sprains twice to the same ankle derailed any idea that Auguste could crack a veteran rotation. Then-senior Jack Cooley had locked down all the low-post minutes. There weren’t many left for the 6-foot-10 native of Marlborough, Mass., who averaged 3.7 points and 2.7 rebounds in 10.7 minutes.

Looking to start fresh as a sophomore, Auguste changed uniform numbers. He traded in No. 2 for 30, the number he wore at New Hampton (N.H.) School. He did it to rekindle the way he played as prep senior in averaging 15.0 points and 8.0 rebounds.

Little was different. With fifth-year seniors Tom Knight (3.9 ppg., 3.1 rpg.) and Garrick Sherman (13.5, 7.3) monopolizing most of the big-man minutes, Auguste again felt on borrowed time, and often was left on the outside looking in.

Frustration over wanting to do more but being unable to led Auguste to smack a padded wall during a preseason practice. The subsequent broken left hand cost him valuable reps.

Auguste averaged 6.7 points and 4.3 rebounds in 16.7 minutes. He started 13 games, but never did enough to stay a main guy. He seemed on the verge of something as a starter in late-January/early-February after 10 points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes against Virginia, and then 10 points and eight rebounds in 20 minutes against Boston College. He followed with no points and three rebounds in nine minutes at Syracuse. Two games after going for 14 points and 12 rebounds as a starter in the double-overtime victory against Clemson in mid-February, Auguste started and drifted through eight minutes of the Miami (Fla.) loss with no points and one rebound.

Each time it looked as if he had it all figured out, he played like he didn’t know which direction his game was going.

A strong summer

It took Notre Dame’s foreign tour of Italy in August for Auguste to eventually settle in and realize that everything has changed with his place in the Irish game. Cooley is off trying to make the Utah Jazz as an undrafted free agent following a season of seasoning in Turkey. Knight (England) and Sherman (Poland) are rookies in Europe. When it comes to experienced low-post players on the roster, Auguste is it.

Auguste has to be a main guy, something coach Mike Brey reinforced during the foreign tour when he plugged him in as a starter long before the plane landed. Knowing he’s needed has helped Auguste do something he’s rarely done – just play without wondering if someone is at the scorer’s table waiting to grab his minutes.

“The difference between last year and the year before, I have the time now,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about, ‘Oh, if I make a mistake, I’m going to come out of the game.’ I have the time to play through my mistakes and get better.

“We need a main guy in the middle so I feel like I can fill that position.”

Auguste snatched a team-high seven rebounds in the first game in Italy, then delivered more double-doubles for points and rebounds (three) than he’s had in his collegiate career (one). Auguste had 15 points and 10 rebounds in Notre Dame’s second game, 27 and 11 the third game and finished with 17 and 13.

The competition level was nowhere near Atlantic Coast Conference caliber, but the confidence it offered Auguste was invaluable.

“No one got more out of the trip than Zach Auguste,” Brey said. “He really digested everything, like the teacher and the pupil knew we were on to something good.”

Auguste has no excuses for too often being too wound up when entering games. Yes, the motor would run full-throttle when he’d arrive, but with each passing possession, it would lose a few more RPMs. That’s what has to change this season, when sure and steady will do.

“It’s always better to come out with more energy than less energy,” he said. “At the same time, you’ve got to maintain that consistent level, which is what I’m working on.”

Now’s the time

Auguste was a raw talent who showed flashes of potential his first two years. The Irish haven’t had a big man with that type of pure athleticism since former NBA first-round draft pick Ryan Humphrey. But for every good play he’d make – watch him run the floor in transition and finish a lob dunk from Eric Atkins at DePaul – there were plays that he didn’t make. He would miss a rebound, have errant put-back or a failed blockout.

Soon afterward, he’d give way to a big man that Brey could better trust.

“The biggest thing that Zach had to do was slow down,” Brey said. “He gets himself in trouble when he plays too fast, tries to do things that maybe he should do that are a little bit outside of his role.

“As an older guy in our program, he’s become more mature just because he’s grown up. He’s learned to slow down, and that’s really helped us.”

And helped Auguste. Instead of wondering when or if his time would come, Auguste stands alongside veterans Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant as a starter. The three, along with sophomore guards Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia, started all four exhibitions in Italy. When it was time to sub, Brey often left Auguste in with Connaughton and Grant. That was by design – Grant and Connaughton are main guys. So now is Auguste, so play like one.

“It was good for me to get in there early and get a feel for what’s going to go on,” said Auguste. “Confidence-wise and consistency-wise, I think I’ve got those locked down pretty well now.

“The only problem I have now is being able to focus on a consistent basis, which I think I’ll be able to do.”

Auguste will have help. When he needed some guidance, some direction, some words of encouragement on the court in his first two years, he seldom received it. Other Irish may have been too worried about their own games to help bring along a kid who wasn’t a key piece.

He is now, something that Connaughton and Grant have worked to reinforce daily.

“Zach has one of the best skill sets and NBA bodies that you can see in a big man, but he wasn’t able to focus in last year,” Connaughton said. “Me and Jerian are such close friends with him that we’re able to relate to him in ways that guys on the team last year couldn’t.

“It’s kept him focused.”

Auguste simply has to keep it simple. Rebound. Defend. Protect the rim. Set a screen. Block a shot. Finish in the paint and be better than last season’s anemic 48.3 percent from the free throw line. Don’t worry about finding the ball, it will find him. After making it all seem so complicated his first two years, this year should be easy for Auguste. And the Irish.

“We’re focused on the here and now,” he said. “If we keep focused and not look at the past, we’ll be fine.”

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Junior Zach Auguste figures to be one of the key low-post players for the Irish this season. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)