Notre Dame freshman John Mooney balances inside-outside role

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Midterms had come and gone, yet Notre Dame freshman forward John Mooney found himself staring at another test during a recent practice over fall break.

Working in a five-on-five drill, the 6-foot-9, 245-pound Mooney floated away from the basket and beyond the 3-point line in a corner of the court. Ball reversal found Mooney with it, and a quick decision was required. Even early in the shot clock.

Mooney plays a position that Irish coach Mike Brey has long coveted – he’s a stretch-4 meaning he’s big enough and physical enough to hold more than his own around the low block, yet agile enough and skilled enough with his shot to be on the perimeter. Even in back of the 3-point line.

Mooney’s the type of player that the program hasn’t had since former two-time team captain Rob Kurz, who graduated in 2008.

So there Mooney was with the ball. What next? Should he squeeze off a 3-pointer, or put it on the floor and drive deeper toward the rim along the baseline, which was just beckoning?

Mooney hesitated….then fired.

It missed.

Brey brought the drill to a halt. It was time for a teaching point with the freshman from Orlando, Fla. Brey suggested to Mooney that if the defense was going to lay that far off – his 3 was nowhere near contested – it might be best to first look to get a little closer to the hoop (there was plenty of space to do so) before looking for his shot.

Mooney nodded, then returned to work.

Welcome to college basketball, kid, where the teaching never really stops. Mooney continues to figure out the best balance of when to play on the perimeter and when to put his college-ready frame to work in the trenches.

“I’m still learning,” said Mooney, who averaged 24.8 points, 14.0 rebounds and five blocks a game as a first team all-state selection his senior year at Lake Brantley High School. “Whatever I can do to help the team win. I’m just looking to win a lot of games.”

The first week he was on campus for summer school, Mooney was just hoping his head would stop spinning. He figured that the adjustment from high school to college was going to be one that would take time. But he really didn’t know how different it was until he stepped on the practice floor that first time.

The game moved fast.

Really fast.

“I’ve done a good job slowing it down a little bit, paying attention to detail and finding the right spots,” he said.

The adjustment hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“Mooney’s been impressive,” Brey said. “Johnny Mooney has been very intriguing.”

Intriguing not only because he offers a position that Brey covets, but also because he may have the size to compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Not in a year or two. Now.

“He’s physically ready to play,” Brey said. “I feel he can do it.”

Can Mooney do it when the lights come on for the first time in six days for the first of two exhibition games? That remains to be seen. Of the team’s three freshmen, Mooney’s sort of in the middle of the minutes meter.

Point guard T.J. Gibbs will play. A lot. Swingman Nikola Djogo might not play at all. Mooney? Maybe….maybe not.

His ability to open the floor and not clog everything up if he’s playing alongside fellow power forwards Bonzie Colson or Martinas Geben could be key. Mooney can push for minutes by doing more than getting a rebound here and making a 3 there.

The Irish are going to need Geben and Mooney and sophomore Elijah Burns to be consistently good screeners. Like, really good screeners. They’re main marching orders are to get senior captains V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia open to do what they do before looking to get something for themselves.

Mooney’s all-in.

“It’s kind of an embracive role,” he said. “You’ve got to want to head-hunt and you’ve got to want to get a guy open. You’ve got to have that mindset going into it.”

Three amigos

The NBA season commenced Tuesday with three former Irish standouts on team rosters.

Former swingman Pat Connaughton started his second season with the Portland Trail Blazers late Tuesday at home against the Utah Jazz. Former guard Jerian Grant, who has been traded three times since his first team All-American season of 2014-15, is with the Chicago Bulls. They open Thursday at home against the Boston Celtics.

That means Grant will be reunited with former teammate Demetrius Jackson. A second-round pick of the Celtics in June, Jackson’s regular-season NBA career officially starts in the same building – United Center – where he played in the 2013 McDonald’s All-American game as a senior at Marian High School.

That was the first time that Jackson had ever been in an NBA arena.

Connaughton, who signed a three-year contract with the first two years guaranteed, is slated to make $874,636 this season. Grant will make $1.643 million. The Bulls hold the options for years three and four on Grant’s original rookie contract. Jackson signed a four-year deal with the Celtics, rare for a mid-second round (45th overall) pick. His rookie salary is $1.45 million.

This fall marks the first time since 2012 that Notre Dame has as many as three players on opening-night NBA rosters. That year – 2012-13 – four former Irish (Matt Carroll, Ben Hansbrough, Troy Murphy, Luke Zeller) earned roster spots to start the season.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

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@tnoieNDI