Noie: NBA business takes Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton to Milwaukee
Wise to the way business works in the multi-billion dollar National Basketball Association, former Notre Dame swingman Pat Connaughton always knew change could come.
He would lay down roots in one city (he did), but was ready to pick up and move to another (he did). Still, when the one team that believed in you basically tells you that it no longer does, it stinks.
For the 25-year-old Connaughton, this summer stunk.
Connaughton played his first three NBA seasons in Portland, the team that traded for him after Brooklyn made him a second-round pick in 2015. Having never missed a game in his collegiate career, he logged a DNP-CD (did not play, coach’s decision) in his first one as a pro. Many more followed. Second year, he played more. Third year, after the Blazers picked up his option, he was a rotation regular.
He played in all 82 games with five starts. He recorded career-best averages for points (5.4), rebounds (2.0), assists (1.1) and minutes (18.1). He shot 42 percent from the field, 35.2 percent from 3 and 84.1 percent from the foul line. He was a fan favorite. A good teammate. A guy with a future. Somewhere else.
The 6-foot-5, 206-pound Connaughton likely saw it coming on draft night when the Blazers selected Anfernee Simons and traded for Gary Trent, Jr., two guys who played Connaughton’s position of shooting guard. Not long afterward, Portland declined to offer a contract, making him an unrestricted free agent. Divorce. That’s the thanks you get after three years.
“A little added motivation for somebody who’s pretty self-motivated can make for a pretty good combination,” Connaughton said during a Labor Day weekend return visit to Notre Dame, a place he still considers a second home. “It’s a matter of never forgetting how it ended (in Portland).
Wearing a chip on your shoulder never hurts.”
One basketball door closed, but another opened for someone with Connaughton’s skill set — athletic, shooter, long, good team guy. That door cracked in late July in Milwaukee, a team with a new coach, a new arena and a playoff-experienced core on the rise in the Eastern Conference with available minutes at the shooting guard spot.
After waiting for the NBA free agent dust to settle, Connaughton signed a two-year deal with the Bucks. He’ll make $1.6 million this season, $1.7 million the next, after which he’ll again become a free agent. By choice. Once his deal ends, Connaughton said, the NBA’s salary cap again is expected to spike. Veteran free agents may reap those rewards with potentially large deals.
So now Milwaukee’s home.
“I think it will help my career grow even more,” Connaughton said. “As far as developing as a basketball player at this point in my career, there’s a little more room for it in Milwaukee.”
Milwaukee’s system is centered around small forward Khris Middleton and power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. When defenses double both, somebody’s going to need to make some shots. Enter Connaughton.
“To help them space the floor and grow as the two guard,” he said. “That’s going to help accelerate my career and help it take off based on the stuff that I learned in Portland the last three years.”
The Bucks also have Tony Snell at the spot, but he’s consistently inconsistent. Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo was a first-round pick, but he’s a rookie. Connaughton can be the steady vet. A security blanket for first-year coach Mike Budenholzer. Connaughton sees himself playing a role similar to the one veteran NBA sniper Kyle Korver did in Atlanta. Space the floor. Make shots. Just maybe do a little more.
“He’s probably a better shooter than I am, but I’m a little more athletic than he is,” Connaughton said. “They have openings at my position. I can go in there and get playing time.”
A vet’s mindset
Make that earn playing time. That Connaughton is a veteran who’s paid his NBA dues matters little. He’s not sliding into this season thinking he’s got it locked down. If anything, Portland’s decision left him feeling that he still has plenty to prove. He plans to prove it in Milwaukee.
“Some people would say that I got bit by the business in Portland,” he said. “I’m going in with it this year to earn my spot, that I want and feel I deserve to play a little more and grow and accelerate my career.”
Connaughton carries one memory of Milwaukee during his college days; it’s not a good one. Back when Notre Dame was in the Big East, the Irish traveled there his sophomore year in 2013 to play Marquette in the old Bradley Center, which sits vacant next door to the city’s newest arena, the Fiserv Forum.
“We got absolutely smoked,” Connaughton said recalling an eight-point loss where the then-sophomore scored no points in 31 minutes. “They’re excited for the new arena, how good they’re becoming up there. It will be good to jump on that bandwagon and try to grow with that team.”
It’ll also be good for Connaughton get closer to his Boston roots. He fell hard for the Pacific Northwest. He had a house. He loved the area and the people and his life, but it still was three time zones and thousands of miles away from his roots. From his family. From the Notre Dame campus, a place he could get to maybe twice a year. Now he’s a three-hour drive away and plans to take full advantage. For football weekends. For basketball weekends. For when there are breathers in his schedule and he wants to get back and just hang at a place that still means a lot.
“If I can only take a damn ferry around the lake,” he said, “it would be an hour and a half.”
Every conversation with Connaughton includes another professional sport and his possible plan to play it. Also blessed with a right arm that can deliver a fastball in the mid-90s, Connaughton still contemplates a future in baseball. The Baltimore Orioles selected him in the fourth round of the 2014 draft and own his rights until 2020 – the same year his Bucks deal expires.
Many wondered when the Trail Blazers cut him loose if Connaughton would trade his sneakers and shorts for spikes and a glove. But Portland’s decision strengthened Connaughton’s’ resolve to remain an NBA guy. At least for the next two years. Hopefully, he said, for maybe the next five after that.
Only when he’s been in the NBA for 10 years will he give baseball any serious consideration. Even if that means starting his pitching career at age 33. Yes, he wants to pitch in his beloved Fenway Park. He wants to walk to the mound at Yankee Stadium. But he also dreams about hitting big shots at United Center. Playing meaningful minutes at Staples Center. Being an NBA guy for a long time.
“My time and energy right now is focused on becoming the best I can be as an NBA two-guard,” he said. “I’ll definitely give baseball a shot one day.”