Noie: Determination drives Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton as contract deadline nears

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Booked on a cross-country flight early next week, former Notre Dame two-sport standout Pat Connaughton carries the ultimate standby status.

Whether Connaughton uses the ticket that is scheduled to send him from Boston to Portland, Ore., following Labor Day weekend will be decided Thursday by a phone call.

Make that a non-call.

Following two seasons of minimal NBA minutes with the Portland Trail Blazers, Connaughton spent much of the summer working toward a return for his third. Those first two were fully-guaranteed, a rarity for a second-round pick as Connaughton was in the 2015 draft. Portland holds the third-year option. It has a Thursday deadline to decide if it will honor the contact (which pays $1.4 million) or cut Connaughton.

So no phone call from general manager Neal Olshey or his agent, Sam Samardzija, and it remains business as usual for Connaughton. He’s on a plane headed West next week, back to his house in Portland and back preparing for the 2017-18 season.

His phone rings, and it might be time to dust off Plan B.

“I don’t have anything to tell me if I’m going to be there or if I’m not going to be there,” the 24-year-old Connaughton said Monday from his hometown of Arlington, Mass. “The situation is they basically have to waive me not to be guaranteed.

“If nothing happens, it’s good.”

As Connaughton expects it to be. The Blazers originally had until July 25 to decide the contract status. They requested an extension. Connaughton agreed to it with the belief that if they didn’t want him then, they wouldn’t wait until now.

Pushing the deadline also allowed the Blazers to sort out some serious salary issues. Carrying a payroll of $122.9 million, fifth-highest in the league this season, the Blazers made one big move that could help Connaughton’s cause. On the original deadline day, Portland traded former California guard Allen Crabbe to Brooklyn.

Connaughton and Crabbe were close. They sat next to one another on almost every charter flight the last two years, and were regular dinner companions on the road. But Crabbe played the same position as Connaughton. He also makes $18 million per year. Connaughton is smart enough to understand that teams aren’t paying guys that much to sit behind guys making far less. With Crabbe’s contract off the books, a hole in the depth chart has opened behind starting shooting guard C.J. McCollum.

“They traded a guy that made a lot of shots,” Connaughton said. “I hope I’m in Portland and I hope I’m in Portland because they need a guy who can make some shots.”

Crabbe told Connaughton as much in a text right after the trade. This can be his time. His opportunity. It was tough for Connaughton to see his friend go, but in the short term – this season – it might help him finally get some good minutes. Quality minutes.

Minutes that Connaughton is more than ready to maximize.

Coming out of Notre Dame two years ago, Connaughton believed he was an NBA player. Two seasons in the league, despite more watching than working, hasn’t shaken that stance.

“I wouldn’t have gone into this career as a choice if I didn’t think I could do it,” he said. “Sure, I didn’t necessarily want to spend two years as a glorified bench celebrator. But I did learn a lot.”

A different dimension

The 6-foot-5, 206-pound Connaughton learned that he needed to diversify his game. He had to show that he could be more than a spot-up shooter – yet still spot up and make shots when playing with guys who could handle the ball.

Connaughton aimed to show that part of his game during the July summer league. He was on his way toward doing just that.

Working as the primary ball handler on a summer league squad that lacked a pure point guard, Connaughton played the way a veteran is supposed to when surrounded by rookies trying to find their NBA way. He ran the team with confidence. He got guys in the right spots. He got the ball to them. He was a play-maker, something that was so foreign to him as recently as 2013-14 when he led the Atlantic Coast Conference in defensive rebounding.

Then it all ended.

Chasing a loose ball off a drive late in the first half of a July 11 game, Connaughton grabbed the back of his left leg. A strained hamstring forced him to sit the remainder of summer league. Instead of proving he could play, Connaughton was back in his role as bench booster as Portland advanced to the championship game.

It was hard. All of it. Watching. Wondering. Feeling like he had let an excellent opportunity evaporate.

“It was frustrating because I didn’t feel like I played the way I wanted to,” said Connaughton, who averaged 6.0 points, 2.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.0 steals in 24.3 minutes over three games. “The expectation was not to just make an impact, but be the best player out there every game.”

That third summer coming off a second pro season, were totally different than the first two for Connaughton. As a rookie, his head was swimming from basically Day One and seldom stopped. There are so many adjustments needed at that level that you just aren’t ready for until you experience it, and even then, it takes time.

Seldom did the game ever slow down.

“When I did get in the game as a rookie, I felt more frantic and rushed,” he said. “I didn’t feel as relaxed as I felt my second year.”

That second time around, he felt he did belong. When he got time, especially late in the year with a lot of the Portland regulars resting for the playoffs, Connaughton contributed. He scored 15 points against San Antonio on the second-to-last day of the regular season. The next night, he went for a career high 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists against New Orleans.

In 73 games over two seasons, Connaughton has averaged 1.8 points, 1.2 rebounds and 0.5 assists in 6.2 minutes. But his averages and shooting percentages jumped nearly across the board in his second season.

“From a numbers standpoint, I improved quite a bit,” he said. “Hopefully those numbers stay that way if I get more of an opportunity.

“And hopefully we can find that out this year.”

Option game

However the immediate future unfolds, Connaughton still carries around one down-the-road card that others in his situation simply cannot play.

If and when he or someone else decides that he’s hit his hoops ceiling, be it this fall, next or not at all, baseball still beckons.

A fourth-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles in 2014, the right-hander has remained in contact with general manager Dan Duquette. His major league career consists of 14.1 innings pitched in the summer of 2014 for the short-season Class A Aberdeen (Md.) IronBirds. He had 10 strikeouts to three walks.

But when you can throw a ball in the mid-90s, there’s going to be interest. A lot of interest.

“Whenever he wants to apply his skills full-time, I think he can come quick – to the major leagues – because he’s such a gifted athlete,” Duquette told The Baltimore Sun in July.

That possibility remains intriguing.

Someday.

“One of the cool things in being in the position I’m in, a lot of baseball teams know there are no miles on my arm,” Connaughton said. “When and if I go back (to baseball), my physical condition will be top notch.”

Connaughton has not stepped atop a mound and really cut it loose – like 90-plus mph loose — in over 12 months. He keeps his arm limber by playing the occasional long toss on flat ground. Sometimes, that long toss includes throwing to someone 110 yards away.

“There’s no real point for me to throw off the mound,” he said. “I don’t want to do anything to hinder my ability to play basketball.”

Basketball remains the No.1 option, and still may be it even if the Blazers call Thursday and say thanks for those two years, but we’re moving in a different direction. Connaughton won’t necessarily go running for his glove and a ball and seek out a mound by Thursday afternoon, but that remains a door he’s not going to close.

“I’m fortunate,” he said. “The worst-case scenario for me if (basketball) doesn’t work out is I can try and be an all-star in the Major Leagues and win a Cy Young or two.

“I can’t really complain.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Portland Trail Blazers guard Pat Connaughton believes he has a place in the NBA despite spending his first two seasons watching more than playing. Will the Blazers offer the former Notre Dame standout a chance to return for a third year? (AP File Photo)

On Aug. 31, Portland exercised its third-year option on the contract of former Notre Dame standout Pat Connaughton. He will return to the Trail Blazers for the 2017-18 season.