Noie: Former Notre Dame standout Bonzie Colson learns, lives the NBA life

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

MILWAUKEE

It doesn’t hit former Notre Dame power forward Bonzie Colson when he leaves his downtown apartment for a two-minute drive to the state-of-the-art arena he now calls his office.

Doesn’t hit Colson when he walks into Fiserv Forum, where cameras wait by the loading dock to turn the player arrival into a red carpet moment. Doesn’t hit him as he moves down a back hallway lined with hideous green lighting.

A left and a right and Colson’s in the Milwaukee Bucks’ locker room. Only then does it hit him. Not because he looks to his immediate right and sees future NBA Hall of Famer Pau Gasol, or further around the half-moon layout of the room where former Irish teammate Pat Connaughton’s cubicle sits.

Colson just has to look straight ahead as he enters. There it is. Right in front of him. The last locker in the place, nestled near a side door that’s off limits to outsiders. The space that has his name (BONZIE COLSON) and number (50) above it.

That’s when Colson realizes this is all happening. Has been since he got the mid-January phone call that changed his basketball life.

“When you see that locker, that’s when it kind of hits you, like, I’m here. It’s real,” Colson said Sunday prior to the opener of an Eastern Conference semifinal series between Milwaukee and Boston. “It took me some time to adjust to that, but now it’s kind of second nature.”

Three days after his 23rd birthday on Jan. 12, Colson was summoned off the practice floor as a member of the Canton Charge. An undrafted free agent last summer, Colson signed with the Cavaliers last summer. He was assigned to the team’s G League affiliate.

At practice that day, he was out the door and back to his apartment in Northeast Ohio to pack as fast as possible to hop the first flight available to Milwaukee. The Bucks had acquired his rights and immediately signed him to a two-way contract for $77,250. The deal allowed Colson to split time with Milwaukee (no more than 45 days) and its G League affiliate 85 miles up Interstate 41 in Oshkosh, Wis.

“It was insane,” said Colson, the only Buck to talk during Sunday’s open locker room session. “It was a quick turnaround. I was just happy to be on that two-way.

“I put in the work to get that.”

Colson appeared in 46 G League games with 44 starts. He averaged 14.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 30.8 minutes. He shot 45.3 percent from the field, 33.5 percent from 3 and 70.6 percent from the foul line.

But more was right around the corner.

Proving ground

Colson had to put in additional work to prove worthy of a roster spot with the parent club. NBA rosters often are in a constant state of change in January and February and March. The trade deadline nears, then passes. Injuries build. Teams try to get their core guys ready and rested for the playoffs. Guys on two-ways often are tapped for quick NBA cameos before shuttling back to the G league for more seasoning.

Colson did much of that for two months. He played for the Wisconsin Herd, and played well for the G league team in Oshkosh. When the Bucks needed reinforcements for a West Coast swing, Colson made the trip. He dressed in uniform. He was a part of it, a kid getting his first taste of being a pro.

“It’s been a blessing, for sure, just getting used to how the league works, learning from the guys,” Colson said. “That’s what I’m doing now. I’m taking in as much as I can and trying to get better.”

Colson made his NBA debut Feb. 25. He played three scoreless minutes in a win at Chicago. Then it was back to Oshkosh for a stretch. On March 24, in a home win over, of all teams, Cleveland, Colson got the call in the closing two minutes.

Setting up on the wing in a halfcourt set, Colson watched and waited for a Bucks guard to run the play. The guard could keep it and try to get to the rim or dish to Colson for a wing 3. The guard found the rookie, who fired. As he did, the guard had started running back down the floor.

Almost like he was certain the shot was going in. Almost like he’d previously played with Colson.

Well…

That guard was Connaughton, who registered the assist on Colson’s first NBA basket. It was pretty cool to watch, even cooler for the former Irish to connect like they did in 2015 when Connaughton was a senior and Colson a freshman.

“It was just like back at Notre Dame,” Connaughton said. “I’m happy that I was able to help him get his first bucket.”

If anybody was to help Colson get that first one to go, it had to be Connaughton, a fellow New England native.

“Pat’s been my big bro,” Colson said. “That was an amazing moment.”

Future focus

For someone used to getting buckets in bunches, one wasn’t going to suffice for Colson. Not this season. As the regular season wound down, the 6-foot-6, 225-pound Colson played more with the Bucks and less with the Herd. With the regulars resting for the March 31 game at Atlanta, Colson scored 15 points with 16 rebounds, two assists and a steal in 41 minutes of a 136-135 loss. On March 10, when the Bucks dressed only eight against Oklahoma City, he went for 21 points, 10 rebounds and three steals in 45 minutes.

“Those two games really helped me have a good start to my NBA career,” said Colson, who averaged 4.9 points, 3.8 rebounds and 0.4 assists in 12.3 minutes over eight games as a small forward with the Bucks. “It gave me confidence; they guys gave me confidence. When you’re around guys who give you confidence, you go out there and play and have fun.”

League rules prohibit two-way players from joining post-season rosters. Colson remains with the Bucks and can travel to road cities during series, but he cannot dress in uniform. He’s relegated to a seat behind the bench in street clothes. There he watches and learns. And waits.

While most of the Bucks warmed up Sunday two hours before tip, Colson was across the street at the team’s practice facility going through his own 25-minute workout with assistant coach Vin Baker. A four-time NBA all-star and 13-year veteran, Baker serves as Colson’s personal coach. He’s the one in his ear for the next 10 weeks counseling how to get his game up to NBA speed.

“He’s become my guy,” Colson said. “He’s been a great kind of uncle to me, trying to take my game to the next level.”

Colson plans to play summer league with the Bucks. Maybe that leads to another two-way contract for 2019-20. Or a full-time roster spot in Milwaukee or elsewhere. Too early to say, but Colson’s going to keep chasing, keep proving he has a spot in this league.

And keep thinking about tomorrows, less about yesterdays. In a 10-minute conversation Sunday, one topic barely was broached — his foot. Over a three-month period during his senior year at Notre Dame, Colson twice broke a bone in his left foot. It cost him the chance to make a run at Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year (he likely would have won it), cost him a chance to get drafted (he would have), cost him a shot at making a roster spot as a rookie and one of five in Notre Dame history with at least 1,600 points (1,632) and 900 rebounds (900).

None of that matters. A healthy Colson’s been able to get his foot (no pun intended) in the NBA door. He plans to keep it there.

“This is my journey; this is my path,” he said. “This is God’s plan for me. Just be thankful that you’re here.”

Former Notre Dame power forward Bonzie Colson is learning what it takes to be a professional with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.
Milwaukee Bucks’ Bonzie Colson shoots against Oklahoma City Thunder’s Dennis Schroeder on April 10 in Milwaukee.