Powerful night for Notre Dame hoops program at NBA draft

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Irony tagged along late Thursday as two former Notre Dame men's basketball players made the ultimate leap from college to the NBA.

Former Irish swingman Pat Connaughton and guard Jerian Grant were both selected — and then both traded — during the two-round process at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Grant became the program's first first-round draft pick since 2002, when he was selected by his hometown Washington Wizards with the No. 19 pick. A native of nearby Bowie, Md., his draft rights were traded to the Atlanta Hawks and then on to the New York Knicks, all within some 35 minutes after he donned a Wizards hat in the green room with his father, Harvey, his brothers and Irish coach Mike Brey by his side.

About 75 minutes later, Connaughton was selected by the Brooklyn Nets with the No. 41 selection — the 11th pick of the second round — only to be traded shortly after to the Portland Trail Blazers.

There are ironic, interesting backstories wedged within both moves, none more than Grant landing in New York, where he will play his home games at Madison Square Garden, site of one of his toughest nights as a collegiate player.

On Dec. 21, 2013, Notre Dame held a seemingly secure eight-point lead with 50 seconds remaining against then-No. 3 Ohio State. But after primary ball-handler Eric Atkins fouled out, Grant was required to solve the Buckeyes' relentless pressure. He couldn't.

The eight-point Irish lead disintegrated into a baffling 64-61 loss. Grant was the lone player to represent Notre Dame in the postgame interview room, where he tried to answer questions about what had just transpired.

Afterward, he walked out of the building billed as the "World's Most Famous Arena" not knowing if he would ever again wear the Irish uniform.

Less than 24 hours after the loss, Grant announced that he would leave school for the upcoming spring semester because of an "academic misstep" committed earlier in the fall semester. The next time Grant steps back onto the infamous freight elevator for the ride up the Garden's main floor will be the first time since that night against Ohio State.

Thoughts of that evening crossed Brey's mind while he was in Manhattan earlier Thursday afternoon. As the team bus departed the Garden that night in 2013, Brey chose to walk back to the team hotel.

During a suffocating moment, he needed some air. And space. And time to think. Grant was gone, and any idea of the Irish winning without him soon would follow.

"I was thinking (Thursday) that this was the first time Jerian and I have spent time in the city together since that night in the Garden," Brey told the Tribune late Thursday night. "Certainly, that was the lowest point for him as a player and for us as a team."

And now?

"I said all season that Jerian's return was one of the best stories in college basketball," Brey said. "Talk about storybook endings — he's going back to that building, the Garden, as a first-round NBA Draft pick.

"This is the ultimate closing of the circle."

Brey was slated to return to South Bend on Friday before a scheduled offseason practice Saturday with members of the 2015-16 team. He likely would bring back a story or two about what it was like to be right there as one of his former college players made the jump to the game's highest level. it was a memorable night for Grant, but it also was a memorable night for his former college coach.

"It's just so powerful to be there in the green room with the family," Brey said. "There's just so much energy in the building, so much uncertainty."

Brey did his best to keep Grant's nerves under control as the player sat for more than two hours before hearing his name called. Fortunately, Grant had his younger brother, Jerami, who was drafted in the second round last season by Philadelphia, to lean on early and often before being selected.

"It was neat to see Jerami keep him calm," Brey said. "Jerian's agent (Raymond Brothers) came up to him and explained what was going to happen. He said, 'The Wizards are going to take you, but it's not going to be for long. You're going to end up with the Knicks.' "

And end up playing in the famed "triangle" offensive system preferred by team president Phil Jackson, who won a combined 11 NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers utilizing a style that is a bit more rigid than most read-and-react systems the pros prefer.

Jackson and head coach Derek Fisher have absorbed a heavy dose of criticism coming off last season's 17-65 record, the worst in franchise history. Many have howled that the system doesn't work. It's too robotic. It stifles the creativity of point guards.

Brey believes Grant will flourish in the big city and in the system.

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

Confidence is not a problem for Grant, who believes his game can help a team that needs a whole lot of it.

"I do think I'm able to come in and start and help this team right away," Grant said Friday during a news conference at the team's training facility.

Grant averaged 12.3 points, 3.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists in 38.5 minutes during his eight games at the Garden in his collegiate career. While he was running the media gauntlet late Thursday/early Friday back at Barclays, his former Irish teammate was being selected in the second round.

Connaughton accepted his long odds in early spring, stared them down for the weeks and months that followed and then, Thursday, shredded them by being selected early in the second round.

Considered to have a better professional future in baseball after becoming a fourth-round pick 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.

When asked last month who his game can be compared to among current NBA players, Connaughton answered with no hesitation that his skills mirror those of former Marquette swingman Wesley Matthews Jr., who parlayed one year with the Utah Jazz into a mega deal (five years, $32.5 million) from the Portland Trail Blazers.

Matthews went undrafted in 2009.

The Blazers traded for Connaughton, in part, as possible insurance in case Matthews, an unrestricted free agent who ruptured his Achilles tendon late in the 2015 season, goes elsewhere.

Irony.

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 organization. But the more hoops that Connaughton played this past winter, when 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' farm system 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 deeper into the game.

He played in the NABC all-star game at the Final Four and participated in the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational Tournament — a pre-draft event — 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 is in this thing."

Connaughton’s individual testing numbers were ridiculous. 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.

Connaughton and Grant led Notre Dame on a magical ride last winter. The Irish won a modern-day school record 32 games. They went 14-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and captured the league tournament championship. They won three NCAA tournament games and advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1979. The program will get a lot of mileage out of it all.

And it will get even more of a boost from Thursday's events. Twenty-three years had passed since two former Irish were selected in the same NBA Draft. Given where this program is now, and where's it's headed, it may not be 23 months before that happens again.

It all commenced — on and off the floor — with Connaughton and Grant.

"An extremely powerful night for our program," Brey said. "There's not a more powerful night for our recruiting. Every kid we're recruiting was home watching this thing. We want to ride this momentum through the rest of the year in recruiting.

"What an endorsement for our program moving forward."

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Pat Connaughton, Mike Brey and Jerian Grant are 0-for-2 in Greensboro during their Notre Dame careers, something they look to change starting Thursday at the ACC tournament.AP Photo/JOE RAYMOND