Notebook: Eric Atkins returns to run different Notre Dame hoops show
Banging around the storage area in the basketball team’s basement practice facility earlier this week, the guy made sure a rack of game-ready Wilsons were secured before closing the closet doors and calling it a day.
Three years ago, Eric Atkins was basically running practices at point guard as an extension of Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. This coming season, it will be the job of Atkins, the only three-time team captain in program history, to make sure everything about practice and the program runs smoothly as the team’s video coordinator and secondary coordinator of basketball operations.
At a time when most former players his age (24) – barely two seasons removed from a college career that saw him score 1,421 points with 589 assists (fourth all-time) in 133 games – are making livings playing professionally, Atkins is learning about life after playing.
“It’s a little different being on the opposite side of it,” Atkins admitted. “But this is what I wanted to do with my career so I had to jump at the chance to get it started when I had an opportunity at a place like this.”
Atkins didn’t plan on making the transition from player to coach-in-training so soon after graduating in 2014 with a degree in film, television and theater. He spent one season (2014-15) in Greece where he played in all 26 games and averaged 7.0 points, 2.2 rebounds and a team-best 2.9 assists in 23.0 minutes per game.
He returned to Europe in 2015 with plans to play professionally in Hungary, but left shortly into preseason. He wanted to be a pass-first point guard, someone who helped others go for 30 points; the coach wanted Atkins to be a score-first point guard who would get 30 every night.
The Utah Jazz signed him last fall with plans of adding Atkins to their Development League roster, but when another point-guard option presented itself, the Jazz went with Plan B.
Atkins pondered not playing at all, then spent the 2015-16 season in the D-League with the Erie (Pa.) BayHawks. In 24 games, he averaged 6.5 points, 1.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 24.2 minutes per game.
Continuing in the D-League was a possibility this season, but that was before the status quo inside the Irish basketball office was turned upside down in spring.
“My professional career probably didn’t pan out the way I wanted it to, but you’re not sour about it,” Atkins said. “It happens. Then when all the coaching changes happened, it seemed like a perfect fit.”
Former Irish assistant Anthony Solomon took a similar position at Georgetown. Fellow former assistant Martin Ingelsby was hired as head coach at Delaware. He took with him video coordinator and Notre Dame graduate Pat Rogers.
With three positions open, Atkins was on Brey’s short list to fill the video coordinator/secondary ops spot with the idea of learning the college coaching ropes.
Like the conversations with former Irish players Ryan Ayers and Ryan Humphrey, hired as assistants, Brey’s exchange with Atkins was brief, his message clear – come back. Now.
“Coach Brey called me and asked, ‘Do you think you can do it?’” Atkins said. “I said, ‘I know that I can do it.’ It was an easy choice for him to put me in that slot.”
Atkins is charge of just about everything behind the scenes. He’ll get everything ready on the court for practices. He can watch workouts and offer a word or two to players in a quiet moment. He’ll gather video of opposing teams and break the film down in ways the coaches want it. And he knows well of how they want it – he was watching Rogers’ same game cut-ups not long ago.
As for going from playing for Brey to working for him, nothing’s really changed.
“It’s very similar,” Atkins said. “He expects about the same, just from a different side of it. I know what to expect from him; he knows what to expect from me.”
Irish freshman point guard T.J. Gibbs learned early on during his six-week session of summer school that playing college basketball was an entirely different world from high school.
Gibbs was taught that lesson by sophomore power forward Elijah Burns.
Grabbing a missed shot one day during a scrimmage session, Gibbs was confident he could do just as he did back at Seton Hall Prep in New Jersey – secure the miss, get up the floor and scramble the defense. But as soon as Gibbs landed and looked to dribble, Burns wrestled the ball away and dunked.
“I was like, ‘Wow. I’m not used to that happening,’” Gibbs said. “It was definitely fun to get acclimated like that and realize that I’m, playing with the big boys now.”
By the end of summer school, the 6-foot-3, 200 pound Gibbs carried himself like one of those big boys. Called on Tuesday to defend sophomore Rex Pflueger during a three-stop practice drill, Gibbs marched right up to Pflueger, who was handling the ball, got in a stance and challenged him.
It’s not something Gibbs likely would have done when he first arrived.
“Going through the start of practice, you’re anxious not knowing what to do,” he said. “Then when you get acclimated to everything, you can just play.”
And Gibbs will play. A lot. Of the team’s three freshmen, Gibbs has been put on the fast track by Brey to be ready from the jump. Junior Matt Farrell will open the season as the starting point guard, but also pair with Gibbs. That’s the way it worked last March – Farrell and Demetrius Jackson – when the Irish won three NCAA Tournament games for a second-straight season.
A past Irish point guard likes what he sees from the future of the spot with Gibbs.
“He’s come in from the first day and showed that he felt like he belonged,” Atkins said. “Some guys come in tentative, but he came in ready to go. That’s a big thing.”
Being affiliated with Under Armour offers the Irish plenty of perks, be it free gear or getting to wear the latest model of basketball shoe before anyone else.
It also includes the chance for a returning player to earn an invitation to an annual Under Armour skills camp run by two-time NBA most valuable player Stephen Curry.
Last year, Jackson spent a few days in the Bay Area working with the Golden State guard at his SC Select Camp. Last month, it was senior- and captain-to-be Steve Vasturia who made the trip as one of the nation’s top 20 guards.
“It was cool,” Vasturia said. “Not a lot of people get the chance to be on the court with Stephen Curry going through drills. It was really impressive.
“It was a lot of one-on-one work.”
Most of the drills centered on the self-evaluation of a player’s game, particularly his ability to best handle the ball in close quarters. One exercise had Vasturia and the other college players alternate dribbling a basketball from one hand to the other while juggling a tennis ball.
The 6-6 Vasturia also worked on deepening his offensive game. He’s either shot it from distance or driven it his first three years. This year, he hopes to become more of a mod-range weapon.
“He doesn’t have to go all the way to the hole all the time and try and draw the foul,” Brey said.