Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton, Jerian Grant go in NBA draft

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Two former Notre Dame men’s basketball players shared one dream Thursday at the 2015 NBA draft.

Guard Jerian Grant became the first Irish picked in the first round since 2002 while swingman Pat Connaughton beat what were once long odds and became a second-round pick during the annual two-round selection at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

A consensus All-American his senior year, Grant was taken by his hometown Washington Wizards with the No. 19 pick. The team’s lone captain who helped drive Notre Dame to a 32-6 record, Connaughton went to the Brooklyn Nets in the second round with the 41st overall pick. He then was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers.

Thursday marks the first time two Irish have been selected in the same NBA draft since 1992. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey attended the draft as part of Grant’s entourage in the arena’s green room.

"It's a great night for our program," Brey said late Thursday night. "Just so powerful."

About 35 minutes after being selected by Washington, Grant was traded to Atlanta and then on to the New York Knicks in exchange for former Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. Grant will get a chance to perform on the biggest of stages when he plays his home games at Madison Square Garden.

"I'm excited for it," Grant told ESPN about going to New York. "It's a blessing. I just want to come out here and prove I belong.

"I'm a winner."

And he's ready. Now.

"The opportunity to play right away is huge," Brey said. "Playing in the Triangle needs a cerebral player and no one has a higher basketball IQ than Jerian. He's a great fit."

From as far back as last summer, when he returned to Notre Dame after missing the 2014 spring semester due to an “academic misstep,” Grant was a likely NBA draft pick. The same could not be said for Connaughton, who accepted his long odds in early spring, stared them down for the weeks and months that followed and then, Thursday, shredded them.

Considered to have a better professional future in baseball after becoming a fourth-round selection of the Baltimore Orioles last June, the 6-foot-4 Connaughton confidently and quietly worked his way up NBA draft boards the last two months. He spent draft night at home in Arlington, Mass., surrounded by his massive extended family and friends.

He'll likely spend next season in the NBA.

Thursday marked the first time an Irish player has been taken in the second round of the NBA draft since the Boston Celtics selected Luke Harangody in 2010.

Professional basketball seemingly was never thought to be a serious option for Connaughton after he earned a $480,000 signing bonus last summer for his brief stay with the Orioles. But the more hoops that Connaughton played this past winter, where he averaged 12.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 35.6 minutes, the more he wasn’t ready to walk away.

He was expected to rejoin the Orioles soon after Notre Dame’s season ended with a two-point loss to Kentucky in the NCAA tournament Elite Eight. But instead of walking away from hoops, Connaughton jumped even more heavily into the game.

He played in the NABC all-star game at the Final Four and participated in the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational Tournament in April, then had his first audition in the following days with the San Antonio Spurs. He turned plenty of NBA heads in May during the draft combine in Chicago.

"There's no question that baseball is on the back burner," Brey said. "He had to convince teams that he was serious about playing basketball. But he is in this thing."

Connaughton’s individual testing numbers were outstanding. That included a vertical leap of 44 inches, which tied for second-best in combine history.

"He's a ridiculous athlete," said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. "He tested off the charts at the combine."

Following that weekend in Chicago, which came only days before graduation from Notre Dame, Connaughton became a very real second-round option.

“I couldn’t have written a better script,” he told the Tribune last month.

Having played much of his career as a small forward and undersized power forward (he led the Atlantic Coast Conference in defensive rebounding as a junior) Connaughton is considered a shooting guard at the NBA level. As was the case early in his career at Notre Dame when he was often asked –— OK, ordered — to guard the best perimeter player, Connaughton has worked to prove the last few months that he can guard quicker, smaller players on the perimeter.

“It’s a matter of showing them that I can do it and that I can create my own shot,” Connaughton said. “It kind of goes back to my freshman and sophomore years at Notre Dame where the reason I got on the floor was I was defending the best player on the floor on the other team every night.”

Connaughton may eventually return to baseball — the Orioles retain his rights for six years — but he couldn’t walk away from basketball without chasing his pro dreams.

And it is NBA or bust for Connaughton, who will not play in the Development League or overseas in pursuit of that NBA dream. Once that NBA dream dies, whenever that may happen – it’s back to baseball for someone whose fastball has been clocked in the mid-90s.

“If I don’t make the NBA for some particular reason, I’ll go right back to it and pursue that,” Connaughton told the Tribune last month about baseball. “I’d kick myself if I didn’t give (basketball) a shot. It’s something that I’ve been doing since I was 2 years old.”

Now he gets to do it at the highest of levels.

Only the second college senior (Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky went ninth to Charlotte) selected among the first 19 picks, Grant becomes the third first-round selection and fourth overall in his family. His father, Harvey, was the No. 12 overall pick by the then-Washington Bullets in the 1988 draft, which was held across the river at the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden in midtown Manhattan. His uncle, Horace, was the No. 10 selection in 1987 by the Chicago Bulls.

Grant’s younger brother, Jerami, was a second-round selection of the Philadelphia 76ers last June after two seasons at Syracuse.

Grant was the fourth former Atlantic Coast Conference standout selected Thursday following Duke’s Jahlil Okafor (third, Philadelphia) and Justise Winslow (10th, Miami) and Louisville’s Terry Rozier (16th, Boston).

“He’s ready to come in and play right away,” Bilas said of Grant.

Grant averaged 16.5 points, 3.0 rebounds and 6.7 assists in 37.1 minutes in leading Notre Dame to a 32-6 record and spot in the Elite Eight. He shot 47.8 percent from the field, 31.6 percent from 3 and 78 percent from the free throw line. He was classified as a point guard heading into the draft but is a true combo guard, a spot he often played last season while Demetrius Jackson handled handling duties.

Grant’s versatility will come in handy at the next level. He’s not a true point; he’s not a true shooter. He’s a guard. A good one.

“The things I can do with the ball helps make everyone around me better,” he told the Tribune last month.

Next up for the former Irish guard will be the NBA summer league, which starts in early July. As a first-round draft pick, Grant will sign a league-mandated four-year contract. The first two years are guaranteed with team options for the third and fourth years.

NBA rookies are slotted into specific salary spots based on their draft positions. Last year’s No. 19 pick, Michigan State's Gary Harris, was paid $1.2 million during the 2014-15 season. He’s scheduled to make $3.8 million his first three seasons.

Second-round picks rarely earn guaranteed or multi-year deals. Last year's 41st pick, Nikola Jokic, played this past season in Serbia.

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Former Notre Dame standouts Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton were picked in the first and second rounds, and then also traded, in Thursday's NBA draft.SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ