Notre Dame grad Pat Connaughton believes he belongs in NBA

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Locked in with laser focus when it was time to work, former Notre Dame two-sport standout Pat Connaughton rarely allowed that determination to be distracted.

By anything. Or anyone.

Like when he helped lead the men’s basketball team last March to within one win of its first Final Four since 1978. Or when he did enough as a pitcher with the baseball team to become a fourth-round pick in the 2014 amateur draft by the Baltimore Orioles. And when he arrived at the NBA’s pre-draft combine last May as a relative unknown, then left as a lock to be a second-round pick.

Focused on the magnitude of the moment, Connaughton rarely let himself get caught up in the magnitude of that moment.

Then he stepped on the Staples Center floor in late October during the second quarter of an NBA preseason game against the Los Angeles Clippers as a rookie with the Portland Trail Blazers. Only then, after all the hundreds and thousands of hours devoted to playing and excelling in two sports, did something and someone finally get to him.

“I don’t get star-struck that often,” Connaughton said last week during a visit back to campus. “I’m just too competitive.”

Connaughton dropped his competitive guard after checking into the contest and being assigned to check veteran Clippers swingman and future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce. His mind immediately raced back to when he was 10 years old growing up in the Boston suburb of Arlington, Mass. The Celtics were his team. Pierce was his guy.

One of Connaughton’s uncles who knew somebody who knew somebody once got him a pair of game-worn wristbands from Pierce. Another time after another Celtics game at TD Garden, Connaughton had Pierce sign a basketball for him.

“I grew up with him,” Connaughton said. “He was THE Celtic of my generation.”

So there he was expected to keep Pierce from scoring while trying to also score on him. Connaughton drifted through the first few trips up and down the floor in awe. Then his competitiveness kicked in when Pierce drove the lane on him. He put aside any nostalgia. He went to work.

On both ends.

“There is tape of me getting a blocked shot against him and then me coming down the other end and hitting a 3,” Connaughton said. “I put that on repeat once or twice when I need to get my confidence back up.”

A rookie’s struggles

Confidence seldom was a problem for the 6-foot-5, 206-pound Connaughton during his Notre Dame days. He knew he was going to play two sports. He knew he was going to be more than serviceable in both. He believed that after his four years, he would have the options to play one, play the other or play both.

Connaughton appeared in a school-record 139 basketball games. Barely halfway through his freshman season, Connaughton slid into the starting lineup and never left. He started 120 consecutive games. He was a cornerstone of a program that he would take places.

But in his first NBA game as a second-round selection (41st overall) who was traded from the East Coast (Brooklyn) to the West Coast (Portland) on a whirlwind draft night, Connaughton logged a DNP-CD (did not play, coach’s decision). It was the first of many.

Connaughton is averaging 0.6 points, 0.7 rebounds and 0.1 assists in 21 games. He’s never played more than six minutes or scored more than five points in a game. He would prefer to be running down the floor alongside Blazers guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, or throwing it into the post for Mason Plumlee. Or making highlight plays like he did back in college.

But this isn’t college anymore. This is a business. A big business. So he works on his game away from the big stage, then sits and watches and waits.

“You’ve got to learn the way of the league,” he said. “It’s different than college and not something you’re used to. But you have to work hard every day and work gradually to gain an understanding of what works and what doesn’t work to help judge whether I can play now and in the future.”

For Connaughton, once his NBA run ends, his basketball dreams ends. There will be no bouncing around the Development League, or holding on in Europe hoping for a second chance. It’s always been NBA or bust.

Can he play in the NBA? Will he play in the NBA?

“Absolutely,” Connaughton said. “You have to keep a positive mindset. Notre Dame taught me a great deal about leadership and self-awareness and how you’ve got to have the ability to tell how you stack up against others whether you’re playing or not.”

Not playing much would be tough had the Trail Blazers followed the prediction of many and simply fallen off the Western Conference map after losing four starters off last year’s team. Portland was predicted to nose-dive straight into the lottery wasteland after a near-complete overhaul of its core.

Instead, the Blazers have been a surprise. Coming back from the All-Star break Friday at home against Golden State, Portland is 27-27 and in second place in the Northwest Division. The playoffs are a real possibility.

Though most of his work unfolds behind the scenes, Connaughton wants to do all he can to help the Blazers get there.

“Winning always comes first for me, so I’ve enjoyed it and enjoyed the atmosphere of the games,” he said. “We’re doing a lot better than people thought we would.”

The constant question

Whether Connaughton was in the rotation or not, whether he was on the outside looking in, whether he made a team as the longest of longshots as an undrafted free agent or not, one question would continue to hover over his choice to chase a basketball career.

What about baseball?

The fourth-round pick of the Orioles with a fastball that with a little more work and sole focus could creep toward 100 mph, the right-handed Connaughton still dreams about pitching one day at that sport’s highest level. Prior to his senior season at Notre Dame, Connaughton spent four weeks pitching for Baltimore’s low Class-A farm team in Aberdeen, Md. His signing bonus was $425,000.

He received a taste of what life in baseball might be like before returning to campus to spearhead that magical 2014-15 basketball season. Baseball was on his mind then; it remains on his mind now. And will again be tomorrow.

“That’s never going to go away,” Connaughton said. “I firmly believe that I will pitch in the big leagues one day. It’s just a matter of staying true to doing what you need to do for yourself.”

Right now for the 23-year-old Connaughton, that means chasing a basketball dream that many figured would remain just that. Being an NBA guy was never really a serious option, even as late as before his senior year. Then it all unfolded in front of him.

Had Connaughton wanted to take the safest route toward being a professional athlete, he would have chosen baseball first, second and third and twice on get-away day.

At one point, Connaughton was ranked among the Orioles’ Top 10 prospects. Now he’s not among the Top 30. Had his baseball clock started right after Notre Dame lost to Kentucky in the 2015 NCAA tournament Midwest Regional final, Connaughton could be closing in on the bigs.

Becoming a professional basketball player wasn’t going to be easy. Remaining one isn’t going to be easy.

“I’m not chasing something with a blind eye, but I am chasing something in the NBA that people didn’t think I would be able to. I know that I can do it,” he said. “I’ll keep my arm in shape and make sure I do things I need to do to never burn that bridge.”

That bridge likely will not be crossed while Connaughton is under his current contract that pays $625,000 per year. Blazers general manager Neil Olshey made it clear when he extended Connaughton a three-year deal with the first two guaranteed, rare for a second-round pick, that splitting time between sports was not an option.

For now.

“If he gets into a second contract down the road and that is something he wants to pursue, then that can be a discussion point,” Olshey told NBA.com last fall. “If basketball doesn’t work out for him, he is still going to be able to throw in the mid-90s.

“He will be a bigger and stronger version of what he is today.”

Back to school

The NBA grind often breaks rookies down well before the New Year. An endless cycle of travel and games and hotels and practices, sometimes in three cities over four nights, can be exhausting, overwhelming and downright difficult.

Connaughton enjoys it. The grind of the NBA? Try the grind of what he worked through in college — playing two sports at the highest of levels and working his way to a degree from the Mendoza College of Business.

THAT is a grind. This, not so much.

“It hasn’t bothered me,” Connaughton said. “I don’t have to do schoolwork anymore. That’s a big load off your shoulder. It’s not easy, but it’s a lot more mental than physical just as long as you take care of your body.”

Last week’s All-Star break afforded Connaughton the chance to do just that — pack a bag, flee the Pacific Northwest and get somewhere tropical for a few days where there’s no rain or snow or cold. Instead of chilling on a beach, Connaughton headed for South Bend to reconnect with former teammates Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant, who were in town for Saturday’s game against No. 18 Louisville, and also plug back into the Irish basketball program.

The ACC Championship banner hanging in a corner of Purcell Pavilion? Connaughton’s a big reason for it. So were the 32 overall wins, the 14 Atlantic Coast Conference wins and that magical run through last March. He helped set a foundation that has Notre Dame now mentioned as a sleeper Final Four pick this time around.

“We did things here that people at the school hadn’t done in a long time,” he said. “To do it and then come back and see it from a fan’s point of view, from an alumni’s point of view, you’re able to look back on your legacy here and it’s set.

“It’s pretty cool.”

Last weekend was Connaughton’s second return to campus since graduation. In September, he and Grant and his former Irish teammates received their ACC Championship rings during a private dinner before being introduced on the field during the Notre Dame-Texas football game. That visit was more of a whirlwind. Now that he’s been away for a few months, Connaughton has let everything about Notre Dame and what he meant to the program sink in.

“Being here completes the whole cycle of your time here and gives you a more mature understanding of what it meant,” he said. “When we came in as freshmen, I don’t think we were Notre Dame guys. I don’t think we knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into.

“We’re such Notre Dame guys now.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @tnoieNDI