Noie: Former Notre Dame basketball star Pat Connaughton now a key player in NBA playoffs

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

MILWAUKEE — Time to take the narrative of former Notre Dame small forward Pat Connaughton in a different direction.

Through his first three years in the NBA, and even the last couple years of his time at Notre Dame, it often was about everything but his basketball skills for the 6-foot-4, 209-pound guard from Arlington, Mass.

Connaughton was the undersized power forward who led the Atlantic Coast Conference in defensive rebounding. He was the guy who soared to a staggering 44.5 inches in the vertical leap at the 2015 NBA combine. The guy whose rights were — and still are — owned by the Baltimore Orioles. The baseball pitcher moonlighting as a basketball player.

Even as a second-round pick, he was looked at more as a curios character. His first three years in the league with Portland, Connaughton was the guy at the end of the bench with the special celebrations for his teammates. Handshakes and hand gestures aside, nobody really knew if he could play.

Now four years in, and his first with a team that many figure could represent the Eastern Conference in this year’s NBA finals — the Milwaukee Bucks —, Connaughton has rewritten his scouting report. His story.

Not with a pen and paper, but with his play.

Now he’s Pat Connaughton, an NBA veteran. An NBA pro.

That sounds good to say. Feels even better for him to hear.

“I’m always going to be the guy that people think should be playing baseball,” Connaughton said late Sunday afternoon. “It’s about continuing to prove it on a nightly basis at this level so I sway those people who think I should be at Camden Yards instead of the Fiserv Forum.

“There’s more to come.”

When Connaughton got his extended chance this season, after he waited for the Bucks to cycle through various rotation combinations and a late-season injury to a key contributor, he delivered.

In 61 games, with two starts, Connaughton averaged career highs for points (6.9), rebounds (4.2), assists (2.9) and minutes (20.7). He was in the rotation, but also sometimes out of it with 19 DNP-CDs (did not play, coach’s decision).

Everything shifted in mid-March when former Virginia standout Malcolm Brogdon suffered a tear of the plantar fascia in his right foot. Over the final 13 regular-season games without Brogdon, Connaughton averaged 10.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 28.9 minutes. He had seven games of at least 30 minutes and six in double figures in points. He also had seven games of at least seven rebounds and four of at least four assists.

“I was fortunate,” Connaughton said. “It’s about continuing to do it on a bigger stage. You can’t look at the playoffs as a bigger brand of basketball. It’s about making sure it’s still a game.”

Brogdon was out again Sunday and won’t be ready by Tuesday for the second game of the series. That means more run for Connaughton. He was the first Buck off the bench less than five minutes into Sunday’s opener in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Boston Celtics (a 112-90 Celtics’ win)

Connaughton has become a favorite inside the sparkling Fiserv Forum, which sits just north of downtown, next door to the open space where once sat the BMO Harris Bradley Center. What’s he going to do next? Drive and dunk? Nearly run over Green Bay quarterback and Wisconsin legend Aaron Rodgers, who was seated courtside with girlfriend Danica Patrick for the first round of the playoffs?

His authentic green road jersey sells for $125 in various arena souvenir shops. A Connaughton No. 24 T-shirt jersey runs $35. There’s a whole lot of big kids and little kids around the concourse sporting his familiar No. 24 along with Nos. 11 (Brook Lopez) and 34 (Giannis Antetokounmpo).

There’s a sellout crowd. There’s fire and lasers and smoke and spotlights and deafening music during the pre-game show. Then there was basketball.

For the home, team and for Connaughton, it was bad basketball.

An awful afternoon

The home team never could get in gear during the loss. The Bucks made a few runs — everyone in this league makes runs — but not nearly enough needed to beat the Celtics.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” said Connaughton, who scored five points on 2-of-10 from the floor with five rebounds and two assists in 24 minutes. “We’ve got to make sure we learn from this, take that step forward after learning and not let it linger in our heads.”

Easier done now that once said. Losses earlier in Connaughton’s career did linger. For hours. For days. This one would sting the rest of Sunday, but drive Connaughton’s determination to be better starting Monday at practice.

“Is that sting going to get you down or is that sting going to fuel something?” Connaughton said. “It’s how can you come back better?

“It’s the never-ending growth of an NBA player.”

That’s life in the NBA. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, and the Bucks figured they did winning their four games against Detroit by an average of 24 points, there’s Sunday’s frustration. And failure. But another chance coming quickly.

Connaughton’s still the same out-going guy he was in college, but there’s an edge about him now. A professional edge. He takes it professionally serious. No interviews before games; gotta get his mind right. Stay with his routine of shooting, stretching, focusing. Quiet, introspective after losses. No smiles. It’s business.

“He’s just taken full advantage of his opportunity,” said former college teammate and current pro teammate Bonzie Colson. “Pat plays with that passion, that heart that edge. He’s shown he’s belonged here. He’s a leader in here.

“He’s just a great guy who helps the team in so many ways.”

The deeper Connaughton has ventured in his pro basketball career, the further away baseball seems. He still won’t close that door, but that’ll be tough if he carves out another four, five years.

The 26-year-old Connaughton is signed with the Bucks through the 2019-20 season when he’ll become a free agent. Put up the numbers he’s been putting up, and there may be some other serious numbers in front of him a couple summers from now.

Dollar signs.

This is a big series and a big week for Connaughton and Colson, two New England natives. Following game two on Tuesday, the series shifts to Boston. Connaughton grew up rooting for the Celtics, grew up idolizing Paul Pierce and wanting to play on the famed parquet floor. He gets that chance later this week.

Going home to play Boston College when Connaughton was at Notre Dame often was one big circus. His family needed lots of tickets. Hundreds. With the Eagles so bad, it never was enough to distract Connaughton from the top task — get back to Indiana with a win.

He’ll be all business this week. Yeah, it’s back in Boston. Yeah, it’s the Celtics. But there’s more to it than just seeing family and friends.

“I’d kind of rather beat them,” Connaughton said of the league’s most storied franchise. “Just another team.”

Spoken like a veteran. Spoken like a pro.

Former Notre Dame men’s basketball player Pat Connaughton has further found his niche in his first season with the Milwaukee Bucks.