Analysis: Time for Notre Dame guys to do some NBA work

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

On a holiday weekend that calls for a comfortable outdoor chair, a tasty beverage, some good eats on the grill and maybe even shooting stuff into the sky, four former Notre Dame men’s basketball players are about to get down to business.

Serious business.

The first full week of July means the start of the NBA summer league in three cities (Orlando, Fla., Salt Lake, Las Vegas) where rookie draft picks, undrafted free agents and veterans looking to jump-start their careers can take a big step toward becoming or remaining one of the elite of the elite.

The casual hoops fan may have checked out until next spring and cares little about what all unfolds in the coming days, but the NBA eyes that do care and really matter are watching. Closely. Critically.

Time to play well. If not, opportunity may be lost. Perhaps forever.

Following is a look at the four Irish preparing to navigate the summer-league seas with their respective teams. Players are listed alphabetically.

• ZACH AUGUSTE

Position: Center.

Team: Los Angeles Lakers.

Summer opener: Friday, July 8 vs. New Orleans (Las Vegas), 10:30 p.m. eastern time.

Contract status: Undrafted last month coming out of college, Auguste looks to earn a guaranteed deal and possible invitation to training camp during summer league.

Outlook: Auguste finally has a chance to prove that his game has a place at the elite level. He turned down an invitation to participate in the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational for NBA draft hopefuls in the spring, then was not invited to the NBA Combine in May. He worked out for anyone who wanted to see him in the weeks before the draft, including a solid showing with the rebuilding Lakers, but the guy who led the Atlantic Coast Conference in rebounding (10.7) and had 22 double-doubles as a senior still went undrafted.

This might be a nice fit for Auguste. Under first-year coach Luke Walton, the Lakers are expected to play much a similar style as Golden State – spread the floor with four shooters around an athletic/rebounding big, get up and down and play fast. That fits well with the way Auguste plays.

He can be an effective pick-and-roll performer (see Notre Dame’s 2014-15 season), but he’s at his best defending on one end, then getting out and rim-running to the other. With little perimeter range, Auguste often struggled when games bogged down into halfcourt affairs and he had to go against size and length, which the NBA has in spades.

When he keeps it simple – rebound, defend, run, finish – he can be an effective role guy.

It might be difficult for an undrafted free agent to show enough and get enough touches this month to prove worthy of a fall roster spot. His game may need some D-League or overseas seasoning.

• PAT CONNAUGHTON

Position: Shooting guard.

Team: Portland Trail Blazers.

Summer opener: Saturday, July 9 vs. Phoenix (Las Vegas), 4 p.m.

Contract status: Entering the second year and final guaranteed year of a three-year contract signed last summer. Connaughton is scheduled to make $874,636 this season, lowest among current Blazers.

Outlook: The 41st pick of the 2015 draft, Connaughton spent almost all of his rookie year watching and learning about the NBA game. Though he earned a guaranteed two-year contract, rare for second-round picks, Connaughton never factored into the rotation plans of a Portland team that went from likely lottery losers to finish 44-38 and make the playoffs last season.

Connaughton barely played (he averaged 4.2 minutes in 34 games), but with the Blazers not having a pick in last month's draft, he becomes the de facto rookie expected to get a long look in Las Vegas.

Despite last year’s success, Portland remains a team in somewhat of a transition. Connaughton is one of only seven returning players under contract for 2016-17. One player signed during the weekend free-agent frenzy, veteran swingman Evan Turner, basically plays the same big-guard/small-forward position as Connaughton.

Connaughton’s athleticism is unquestioned. He still harbors dreams of pitching in the major leagues, perhaps sooner than later. He also recently posted a video that showed him throwing a football 80 yards in the air – while barefoot. But can he rebound and defend and score and just play enough to be a serviceable rotation player this season in the NBA?

He can take a big step toward cementing his spot this month.

• JERIAN GRANT

Position: Point guard.

Team: Chicago Bulls.

Summer opener: Saturday July 9 vs. Boston (Las Vegas), 6 p.m.

Contract status: Entering the second year of a five-year deal (the first two are guaranteed, years three and four include team options with year five a qualifying offer) that will pay $1.643 million this season.

Outlook: The first first-round NBA draft pick from Notre Dame in 12 years, Grant never really got a chance last season with the New York Knicks, the team that traded for him on draft night. A veteran team with all kinds of expectations to win big and win starting yesterday has little use and even less patience for a rookie point guard who struggled to make shots as Grant did (39.1 percent from the field, 22 percent from 3).

Summer league gives Grant a chance to punch the reset button on his pro career. Considered by Irish coach Mike Brey the “ultimate creator” during a magical senior season in 2014-15, Grant showed very little of that flair last season – until near the end when he finally seemed to relax, got more minutes and made plays. Then he was traded for the third time in his career.

Labeled by some as “spare parts” in the Derrick Rose trade, Grant can better utilize his play-making and floor vision in coach Fred Hoiberg's guard-friendly system. He might dust off those point guard skills that earned him first team All-American his final year at Notre Dame. Then again, with the Bulls finalizing a deal with former All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, where might that leave Grant?

• DEMETRIUS JACKSON

Position: Point guard.

Team: Boston Celtics.

Summer opener: Monday, July 4 vs. Philadelphia (Salt Lake City), 7 p.m.

Contract status: A second-round pick (45th overall) in last month’s draft, Jackson has no guaranteed contract but can earn one, like Connaughton did last season, with a solid summer.

Outlook: The first Irish to leave school with a year of eligibility remaining in 15 years, Jackson may face an uphill climb to earn a roster spot with an organization that is heavy on experienced guards with plans to push Cleveland for big-dog status in the Eastern Conference. Boston has already signed veteran power forward Al Horford and has designs on landing Kevin Durant. Both are sure signals that the Celtics are ready to win now without waiting on a rookie guard who may need a year or two to realize his potential.

Like with Grant and the Knicks last season, Boston is no place for a newbie looking to ease into on-the-job training. Jackson must do soemthing to stand out from the jump, or watch the playing-time train leave the station without him.

Even before Jackson plays his first game, he’s fifth on the guard depth chart. Veterans Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and all-star Isaiah Thomas all played at least 27 minutes a game last season. Former first-round pick Terry Rozier is ready for a larger role in his second season. Coach Brad Stevens likes to ride deep rotations, but how much room remains for a small (6-foot-1) rookie guard?

Jackson’s deep determination to prove he belongs will help his cause. Falling to the second round likely carved a crater-sized chip into his sturdy shoulder. But…

Still the NBA door is cracked open. Now it’s up to Jackson and his three former teammates to kick it in.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Former Notre Dame players Zach Auguste (30), Jerian Grant (22) and Pat Connaughton (24) as well as former Irish guard Demetrius Jackson will particiapte in NBA summer league starting July 4.Tribune File Photo/GREG SWIERCZ