NBA silence speaks loud and clear about Pat Connaughton's athleticism

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

CHICAGO – His first NBA individual audition was just about over some 10 days ago when members of the San Antonio Spurs scouting staff had one last request of former Notre Dame swingman Pat Connaughton.

Could Connaughton, who played in more games in his collegiate career (139) than any Irish in school history, finish the session with a dunk? Whatever type of slam Connaughton saw fit to do, he could do.

Uh…..OK….Connaughton thought.

Connaughton took a few dribbles, approached the basket and then launched himself at the rim with a vertical leap measured at 44 inches at last week’s NBA Draft Combine.

When Connaughton landed, he heard only silence. Nobody on the Spurs’ staff likely had expected THAT, even though it came from someone who had won a team dunk contest on the first practice of the season back during Connaughton’s freshman year.

Connaughton’s athleticism again had caught some by surprise.

“It’s a dead-silence type of thing; it’s kind of cool,” Connaughton said of the reaction to his hoops hops. “It’s something I always prided myself on.”

And it’s a perception he continues to fight as he chases his NBA dream. People take one look at the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Connaughton, born and raised in suburban Boston, and automatically label him a shooter, a grinder, a guy who maxes out his athletic ability.

As a junior, Connaughton led the Atlantic Coast Conference in defensive rebounds (5.9 per game). As a senior, he finished eighth in the league at rebounding (7.4). Yet one ESPN college basketball analyst opined on the air during an Irish game last winter that the reason Connaughton was so effective at rebounding was not his skills, but his smarts. Forget his vertical leap and 6-8 wingspan, he was good because he was a position rebounder. A cerebral rebounder.

As he’s dived deeper into the draft process, Connaughton continues to hear the same two words to describe his game — deceptively athletic.

He knows what that really means — guys with his skin color aren’t supposed to have 44-inch vertical leaps or grab 509 rebounds over two seasons in the ultra-athletic ACC.

“I try to disprove that day in and day out,” he said. “People try to compare me to (Atlanta Hawks guard) Kyle Korver right off the bat just because I can shoot a little bit and I’m a white basketball player.

“It’s just a matter of coming out and playing and showing that I can be just as athletic.”

Asked who in the NBA he thinks his game most closely mirrors, Connaughton is ready with a response – Portland Trail Blazers swingman Wesley Matthews, who is black. Like Connaughton, Matthews was a glue guy in college (at Marquette) who could shoot it with distance and battle with the bigger bodies. He just played. Matthews was an undrafted free agent coming out of college, but has since made it big in the NBA (he’s averaged 14.0 points in 32.0 minutes a game the last six seasons) because of his skill set.

"He's has the size and athleticism," former UC Davis guard Corey Hawkins said of Connaughton. "He's a great competitor."

Even during layup lines at last week’s Combine, some of Connaughton’s fellow NBA hopefuls were taken aback by his athleticism. He’s more than just a shooter. He’s an athlete.

“Guys are like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you could jump like that,’” he said.

High on Pflueger

Former Arizona forward Stanley Johnson is projected as a top-10 pick in next month's NBA Draft, barely one year removed from graduating high school.

This time last year, Johnson was finishing up his senior year at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif. One of his prep teammates was incoming Irish freshman guard Rex Pflueger.

Johnson has no idea what the coming months have in store for him, but believes Pflueger will be a big hit when he arrives on the Notre Dame campus in June.

A really big hit.

“I expect him to be freshman of the year in the (ACC) if he gets a chance to play,” Johnson said. “He’s that good.”

Johnson likes many aspects of Pflueger’s game – his ability to defend, pull up and shoot it and his penchant for getting to the rim and finishing.

“Some players who have the highlight ability can’t play basketball,” Johnson said. “He wants to play; he wants to compete. If he’s not starting, he’s going to be challenging for spots.

“He’s nasty.”

Johnson and Pflueger helped the Monarchs win a state championship in 2014.

Eyeing Auguste

Bypassing what would have been his senior season at Boston College for the chance at the NBA means that guard Olivier Hanlan will miss sharing the floor during an ACC game next winter with one of his best friends.

Hanlan’s friendship with Irish senior-to-be Zach Auguste dates back to their prep school days together at New Hampton (N.H.) School. Auguste is someone that Hanlan believes could be on the verge finding his way to the Combine workout next May.

“He has NBA potential, definitely,” said Hanlan, a first team All-ACC pick after averaging a league-best 19.5 points a game. “He’s gelling at the right time and he’s going to do great next year. I do expect him to be (at the combine).”

Hanlan is encouraged by Auguste’s postseason, in which he collected 16 points and 13 rebounds in the ACC championship game win over North Carolina, 25 points in the NCAA Tournament second round game against Northeastern, and 20 points with nine rebounds in the near-miss against Kentucky, after which he heard rumblings that Auguste might entertain leaving early.

“Definitely a lot of people started talking about it after he performed well in the tournament,” Hanlan said. “But I don’t think it was serious.”

Auguste is projected as a late-second round selection in 2016.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI