Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton all in as he chases NBA chance

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

CHICAGO – Sitting there at a small interview table while sporting the standard-issued red shorts and blue and gray tank top with the NBA logo, a No. 28 and his last name on the back, was never supposed to be part of this professional plan.

Or was it?

When Notre Dame’s near-upset of Kentucky in the 2015 NCAA Tournament Elite Eight fell short March 28, former Irish swingman Pat Connaughton was expected to swap his sneakers for spikes on March 29 and resume his career path as a right-handed pitcher with the Baltimore Orioles.

But the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Connaughton had different designs on his immediate future. The more he played basketball, the more he succeeded at basketball, the more fun he had in helping drive Notre Dame to a 32-6 record, an Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship, three wins in the NCAA tournament and a season for the ages, the more he wasn’t ready to give it up.

So when baseball beckoned, Connaughton balked. He wasn’t ready to trade the court for the pitcher’s mound, even if that meant setting aside one sure career choice for one that may or may not materialize.

While many of his college classmates were on campus this week preparing to graduate Sunday, Connaughton was competing at the annual NBA Draft Combine at Quest Multisport Complex in Chicago.

“Right now, I want to play basketball and then when I’m able to successfully solidify myself in basketball, you never know,” Connaughton said. “I’d kick myself if I didn’t give it a shot.”

Days after his college hoops career ended in Cleveland, Connaughton remained fully focused on hoops. He traveled down U.S. 31 to participate in the annual 3-point contest and the Reese’s College All-Star Game during the Final Four. Even before both appearances, he had been chosen to play in the annual Portsmouth (Va.) Tournament Invitational, an NBA showcase reserved for college seniors with fringe second-round and free-agent hopes.

No matter. If anything, it meant the chance to play; to show something to some scout sitting somewhere in some stands, Connaughton was all in.

“For me. It’s just going out and playing,” he said. “Any chance I get to compete, I want to be able to do it.”

Proving he’s a pro

Connaughton’s play at Portsmouth (he averaged 10 points and eight rebounds in 28.6 minutes over three games) earned an invitation to Chicago this week. He was one of 61 draft hopefuls in town for the five-day combine. Included in that group was former teammate and close friend Jerian Grant. This week marked the first time since 2005 that multiple former Irish were invited to audition for NBA decision-makers.

Connaughton performed like someone determined to hear his name called during the two-round, 60-pick process June 25 in Brooklyn. On Thursday, he registered the second-highest one-step vertical leap in combine testing history when he soared 44 inches. His 37.5-inch vertical leap and lane agility time (10.79 seconds) also were tops among all shooting guards (his projected pro position) tested.

“He’s as athletic as (heck),” said former Irish assistant Gene Cross, who never coached Connaughton and spent last season with the Los Angeles D-Fenders of the NBA Development League. “I love his game.”

The combine allowed Connaughton to show a different set of skills during scrimmages. Offensively, there were no plays (single-double, two cross) run designed to get Connaughton shots like at Notre Dame, and nobody like Grant to constantly find him off drives. He had to move and cut and screen or wait for the ball to find him. Most of the times, it didn’t. He made his only two shots -- both 3s -- and finished with six points in 22 minutes working in a reserve role.

Connaughton started Friday and made his first two shots -- both 3s -- in the first five minutes. He scored a game-high 18 points on 5-of-9 from the floor, 4-of-8 from 3 with three rebounds in 26 minutes and another win.

During his last two seasons at Notre Dame, he was required to guard power forwards. At the NBA level, he’ll have to defend shooting guards and small forwards. It’s something he did his first two years with the Irish, when he was routinely assigned to guard the other team’s top perimeter player.

During one scrimmage, Connaughton switched out to cover former Connecticut guard Ryan Boatright in the final seconds of a close game. Boatright’s crossover dribbles and assorted head-fakes were enough to put any defender on skates. Connaughton kept his balance, kept his feet moving and kept a hand up when Boatright elevated for a potential game-tying 3. It missed, and Connaughton’s team won by three.

As Connaughton likes to say, winners win. As ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg said on Friday's combine telecast, "Winning people create a winning culture."

“You’ve got to make the winning plays at winning times,” Connaughton said. “It’s those types of things that are the intangibles that I try to bring.”

Fighting to establish himself in Chicago also had Connaughton open to absorb every ounce of coaching offered. Prior to Thursday’s game, former NBA guard Erick Strickland tutored Connaughton on getting his shot off quicker from the deeper (23 feet, 9 inches opposed to 20-9 in college) 3-point line. Connaughton nodded at what Strickland was saying, then made six of nine attempts from 3. He then stepped a good three feet back from the line and made five of his first six.

“He’s one of the top five shooters in this draft,” Grant said. “That will definitely give him a shot. And then the way he rebounds and how hard he plays, he’ll have a shot.”

An intriguing individual

At Portsmouth, Connaughton met with with 15-20 NBA teams. He auditioned last week with the five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. More workouts/interviews likely will follow leading into late June.

After receiving a $480,100 bonus last June from the Orioles, Connaughton is not contractually obligated in any way this season to the team, which retained his rights for six years when they drafted him. That fact might make some NBA teams wary of using a second-round pick on him.

That skepticism has started to fade some with Connaughton’s willingness to work the last few weeks, his honesty about wanting to earn a spot in the NBA, and his insistence that he’s not going to run off in the middle of everything to play baseball if the Orioles come calling with a substantial contract offer to rejoin their Class A short season team in Aberdeen.

“Pat’s playing for something here,” said one NBA scout who spoke of Connaughton on condition of anonymity. “I feel pretty confident he can get into the second round even with (the Orioles agreement) hanging in the background.

“Do I think he’s going to be on (an NBA) roster? Yes.”

Connaughton may do enough this weekend and in the coming days and weeks to climb in the second round. At the very least, he’ll likely play in some summer league with one or two or three teams. That could put baseball on hold until at least August. Or longer.

“I keep telling him to chase both of them and do them as long as possible because we all know it doesn’t last forever,” said former UC Davis guard Corey Hawkins, who has become fast friends with Connaughton during the pre-draft process. “I just hope for the best for him. He’s incredible.”

The immediate goal is clear – make an NBA roster this fall or forever be finished with playing professional basketball. With baseball there waiting – the Orioles have said they’ll be patient and wait for the No. 9 ranked prospect in their organization to figure out his hoops future – Connaughton has no desire to play overseas or bounce around the Development League.

Now or never, it’s NBA or bust.

“I can’t go back to basketball if I ever choose baseball,” he said. “I have to ride out the basketball thing for as long as I can. If it doesn’t work, I can always say I tried and then go back to baseball.

“Right now, I want to play basketball.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

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Former Notre Dame swingman Pat Connaughton is trying to make the move to shooting guard to play next season in the NBA.AP File Photo/GERRY BROOME

Tale of the NBA tape

Following are the measureables of former Notre Dame men’s basketball players Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant at this week’s NBA Combine in Chicago. Grant, on the advice of his agent, did not participate in the individual testing or five-on-five scrimmages.

Category Connaughton Grant

Position SG PG

Body Fat 10.20% 5.6%

Hand length (inches) 8.50 8.25

Hand width (inches) 9.25 8.50

Height (no shoes) 6-4 6-31/4

Height (shoes) 6-51/4 6-41/4

Standing reach 8-0 8-4

Weight 215 198

Wing span 6-8 6-71/2

Lane agility 10.74 seconds N/A

Shuttle run 3.08 seconds N/A

¾-court sprint 3.2 seconds N/A

Standing vertical leap 37.5 inches N/A

Max vertical leap 44 inches N/A