Now all basketball, Pat Connaughton leaves baseball door open

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Everything about his professional career path has shifted in ways few figured, a reality that won’t hit former Notre Dame men’s basketball swingman Pat Connaughton until early next month.

These days, life remains pretty much status quo.

This month, like every other August since Connaughton enrolled at Notre Dame in 2011, has been spent around family and friends in his hometown of Arlington, Mass. As September nears, he’ll finalize plans for another return to campus, only this time he'll just be passing through.

At halftime of Notre Dame’s football opener against Texas, Connaughton and members of the 2015 Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament championship team are scheduled to be recognized for their 2014-15 accomplishments. The night will officially close the book on a storybook senior season.

The next day, he’ll turn the page.

Connaughton will continue on to the Pacific Northwest to begin his professional career. His professional basketball career. A senior year that saw Connaughton help guide the Irish to their first NCAA tournament Elite Eight appearance since 1979 also allowed him to lead enough and show enough to become a second-round pick in the June NBA draft.

Taken by the Brooklyn Nets with the 41st overall pick, Connaughton’s rights were traded to the Portland Trail Blazers. A solid summer-league showing in Las Vegas — he averaged 7.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals in 22.8 minutes while starting five games — earned Connaughton a second-round rarity. On the eve of the final summer-league game, the Blazers offered Connaughton a three-year contract, including the first two years of guaranteed money.

A fourth-round draft pick of the Baltimore Orioles in the 2014 amateur baseball draft, Connaughton’s initial plan of becoming a major-league pitcher has jumped to the back burner. A far back burner.

Portland’s contractual commitment to Connaughton made it clear that he’s a professional basketball player. And only a basketball player.

Sort of.

“To be honest, it all kind of depends on how I play and develop this year,” Connaughton said. “I’m sure the better I play, the more argument I’ll have to potentially try and do both, whether that’s next year or whether that’s in the second contract.

“But if it’s up to Portland, they want me to focus on basketball.”

The Blazers made that point obvious when they offered the three-year deal (terms not disclosed) of loaded guaranteed money. Baseball will have to wait.

“That’s not happening,” Portland general manager Neal Olshey told NBA.com about Connaughton’s baseball plan. “The conversation we had with Pat prior to all this was you’re an NBA player now. Being an NBA player is not a part-time job.”

Connaughton’s OK with that for the upcoming season, for possibly next season and maybe even the year after that. But then his professional future could go any direction. Could be basketball. Could be baseball. Could be both.

“I’ll never close the door on either of them (but) right now, I have to focus on basketball,” he said. “After that, you never really know what could happen.”

There had been recent talk that the Orioles would seek a refund on the $428,000 signing bonus they handed Connaughton for basically one month of work in July 2014. That has not happened. Connaughton insisted that general manager Dan Duquette has been nothing but supportive of his bid to play professional basketball.

They prefer to see him in Oriole black and orange instead of Blazer black and red, but they’re also patient enough to see how everything plays out for Connaughton, no longer ranked among the organization’s top 30 prospects after climbing to as high as No. 9 last summer.

“They still think I’m a better baseball player than basketball player,” Connaughton said of the Orioles, who hold his rights for another five years. “If basketball is successful and I have an opportunity to work on my game in the summer, they’ll be open to that as well and they’ll know I’ll be there because I want to be there.”

All hoops all the time

Rebuilding in an unforgiving Western Conference, Portland believes the 6-foot-5 Connaughton can play a multitude of positions. Heading into the draft, Connaughton was listed by the NBA as a shooting guard, even though he played mostly small forward, and a lot of power forward, in college. He understands that to make the transition to the ultimate level, he’s got to be better with the ball in the open floor and in creating his shot. He did a little of all that in Vegas, and will be expected to do more during his rookie season.

“He is an excellent fit for our basketball system and our culture,” Olshey said recently on Blazers.com.

With no more school or side throwing sessions to worry about, it’s been all basketball for Connaughton. Save for undergoing surgery on a broken nose he first suffered during a practice his sophomore year (thanks to former teammate Jack Cooley), Connaughton has devoted most of his free time following summer league to being better at all phases on the basketball floor.

“It’s individual skill work, honing in on specific things with your game, strength and conditioning, everything,” he said. “When you play a game so often, you’re going to get better at it.”

Connaughton is ready to prove he belongs, just as he did heading into the NBA’s pre-draft combine in early May when his individual testing numbers grabbed everyone’s attention. It was there where he registered a 44-inch vertical leap, which tied for the second-highest leap in combine history. But in a recent NBA.com story about Connaughton’s two-sport pursuit, Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge called that number into question.

Ainge claimed that Connaughton’s standing reach was actually measured at 45 inches, but recorded as being 40. That means Connaughton’s 44-inch vertical was really 39.

The effort, not the notoriety, mattered most for Connaughton.

“I can jump higher than people thought I could,” he said. “That was the only point I was trying to get across heading into the draft.”

Ainge also opined further on Connaughton’s athletic ability.

“Danny Ainge said that I was a better one-foot jumper than a two-foot jumper,” Connaughton said. “We both know that I jump better off two feet.”

Connaughton considers Ainge a family friend and played on the same AAU circuit in Massachusetts as his sons. But after seeing his comments, he couldn’t help but tweak the former Celtics guard and one-time third baseman of the Toronto Blue Jays.

“I told him I was a better two-sport athlete,” Connaughton said.

And?

“I was going to take it to him because he didn’t draft me.”

A new chapter

Following Labor Day weekend at Notre Dame, Connaughton will head to Oregon three weeks before training camp commences to get settled. He’ll look for a place to live, get to know the city with one of his closest friends, former Irish soccer standout Nick Besler, now playing professionally with the Portland Timbers, and prepare his body and mind for the rigors of an 82-game regular season.

He’s already highlighted a few dates – the Blazers’ opener on Oct. 28 at home against New Orleans, the Dec. 12 home game against the New York Knicks and former college teammate Jerian Grant and the March 2 return to Boston to play the Celtics.

The rest of it remains pretty much a blur of back-to-back games with grinds of three in four nights and four in five. No more out-and-back quick road trips like in college. He might wake up in Memphis one day, Charlotte two days later and San Antonio the next.

“It’s a lot different than looking at a college schedule,” Connaughton said. “A college schedule, you can remember most of the games. When you more than double it, it’s difficult to remember.”

Asked at the combine whose game is most like his, Connaughton was quick to offer the name of Wesley Matthews. After completing a five-year, $34 million contract with the Blazers, Matthews signed this offseason with the Dallas Mavericks for $70 million over four years.

Matthews brought defense, 3-point shooting, athleticism and toughness to the Blazers. Connaughton hopes to do the same. And more.

“I was very fortunate in that Wesley Matthews became Wesley Matthews in Portland,” Connaughton said of the former undrafted free agent. “If I can do that and achieve what he has achieved, then we may be talking in a few years on a whole different level of NBA status.”

Which could mean a return to two-sport status for Connaughton.

“If I’m that good, it’s going to be, ‘How do you do like that max (NBA) deal and how do you like trying to pitch for the Cy Young award in the summer?’”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI