Noie: Notre Dame-bound J.R. Konieczny a different, better player as prep junior

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It had the makings of just another school day for South Bend Saint Joseph junior J.R. Konieczny.

Maybe it was a Monday. Or a Wednesday. Or a Friday. The day escapes him, for they all seemed one and the same. Saint Joseph doesn’t offer students bus service, so Konieczny often needed to hitch a ride to campus from his home in eastern Saint Joseph County. Maybe his mother or his father would give him a lift. Or this friend in the neighborhood. Or that one. When his day was over, he’d have to snag a lift back home.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Same as it ever was.

But on this February morning, everything was different. Konieczny didn’t have to sweat a ride to school. Or one back home. The 17-year-old finally had the chance to fold his 6-foot-7, 195-pound frame behind the wheel of a car. His car — a 2019 Honda Accord.

That morning couldn’t have been any better. Konieczny felt like he’d won the carpool lottery. No more ride shares. No more fighting for the front passenger seat. Just him in his car. That meant he could play his music — hip hop — cranked with the speakers thumping to the beat. The car windows still were all the way up so as not to disturb anyone, plus it was cold out.

Down State Road 23 he rolled toward school. Just enjoying the morning. The music. Enjoying the ride.

“I was in my element,” Konieczny said.

It was a good day for other reasons. Not only did Konieczny finally have his driver’s license and his own way to school, but a left ankle that had bothered him all season — that thanks to a high sprain suffered playing pickup days before the Indians’ first game — finally felt right again. He’d been down the healing road before with the lower leg. It would feel good in games, then swell afterward. He’d have to ice it. Then treat it with some heat. Then rest it. He never felt himself for much of the season.

The bum ankle cost him the season opener against Concord. It limited him to two quarters the second game against Marquette. Through November and December and the bulk of January, Konieczny never said a word. Just wrapped it, played through the aches and still piled up points.

His average of 22.8 points per game ranks second behind only Riley’s Blake Wesley (26.0) for area best. As Class 3-A sectional play opens for fifth-ranked Saint Joseph (17-5) against fourth-ranked Marian (19-4) Friday at 6 p.m. at Jimtown High School, Konieczny finally feels himself. Freedom feels really free. Finally.

“I haven’t really made it public or anything,” he said of the ankle. “But it’s been kind of a lingering thing all season. I’ve been trying to fight through that.”

That’s not all Konieczny has fought through this season, one that’s been way different than his previous two.

Take him away

Last week’s regular-season finale against Mishawaka was a snapshot of what Konieczny has worked through all winter. The Cavemen ran fresh defenders at him seemingly from the minute he emerged from the locker room for pre-game layups. One guy would face guard him, lean on him, get physical with him. Then another fresh guy would check in and do the same. He saw a steady stream of double teams. That’s what happens when you commit to Notre Dame days before the start of your junior year, as Konieczny did. You become a marked guy. You become a known guy. For every team.

See No 20? Stop No. 20.

“You’ve got to be mentally prepared for everything that they’re going to throw at you,” he said. “I know going in that everybody’s going to be gunning for me.”

Key for Konieczny has been to not start gunning from all angles. Trying to find a rhythm last week, he tossed up some wild shots, including a one-footed fade-away on the baseline a la Dirk Nowitzki. He also was OK with his teammates doing their work. Like Jack Futa from 3. Like Will Terry down low. Like Cole Hatkevich at the point. Konieczny labored through the first half scoreless, but you’d never know it. The Indians led by two. Konieczny knew that it would eventually come back around to him. When it did, he’d be ready.

That’s where the Indians are different. That’s where Konieczny is different.

“He trusts his teammates so much more,” said Saint Joseph coach Mark Johnson. “He doesn’t feel like he has to do everything.”

Konieczny is listed as a guard, but isn’t pigeon-holed into that one position. He’ll jump center to start games. He’ll guard the other team’s best player. He’ll play on the wing. He’ll handle the ball. He’ll occasionally venture to the low post, but is best at facing the basket with his out-to-the-center court logo type of shot-making range.

Johnson compares Konieczny to former Indiana standout Bobby Wilkerson (anyone remember him?) for his skill set. Guard? Forward? Doesn’t matter.

“He’s a basketball player,” Johnson said.

Where he projects at the next level is too early to tell. He still has a summer of AAU hoops and final year of high school. Then he’ll get into the strength and conditioning lab at Notre Dame. The Atlantic Coast Conference is a different beast in terms of speed and athleticism and skill and length than what Konieczny’s ever seen in the Northern Indiana Conference. He knows it.

“It’s more of an athletic league,” he said. “I’m trying to develop my all-around game.”

One of the few times that Konieczny ventured near the rim against the Cavemen, he was smacked to the left side of his face. He wobbled to the sideline and needed all of about 12 seconds on the bench to shake it off. Three days later, he carried like a badge of honor the blackish-blueish-yellowish colors around his left eye.

“I don’t mind it,” he said. “It makes me look tough.”

Konieczny has had to be mentally tough as well this season, for he knew what awaited at every road game. He’d hear whispers about being the Notre Dame kid even before games started. Then somewhere along the line, maybe late in the first half or early in the second, and it seemed every time he stepped to the foul line, the chant from the opposing student section would start. It did that night in Mishawaka.


Konieczny’s reaction? A smile, a laugh shared with teammates, and that feeling of here we go again.

“I hear it, 100 percent,” said someone ranked a three-star recruit by and four stars by 247Sports. “That keeps me going. It’s all good. It’s definitely a sign of respect with all the work that I put in.”

The present, the future

Konieczny already has sailed past 1,000 career points (1,219). He’s one of eight in program history to score at least 500 in a season (sophomore year he went for 523 and he’s 22 away from another 500 this year). He’ll make a run next season at the school scoring record (1,700 by Chris Quinn). He’s likely a first team All-Northern Indiana Conference pick this season.

Still, the work for Konieczny seemingly never ends. That night against Mishawaka, he scored all 10 of his points in the third quarter of a 58-46 victory. The next morning, he was back in the gym getting up shots and fine-tuning his game. Following a quick practice at Jimtown in preparation for Friday’s sectional game, Konieczny returned to the gym for more work, more shots, even some yoga to get his body and his mind right. Same thing for Sunday before the Indians’ first postseason practice Monday afternoon.

He’s often at his go-to gym/sanctuary in Granger, a place local ballers know as “The Barn,” for as many as five hours.

“I can’t get down on myself just because I have one bad game,” he said. “I have to work to get better. I just want to get my body right for sectionals.”

Konieczny dreams of winning a state championship, but the first step is finding a way past the Indians’ rivals. Marian won the teams’ only regular-season meeting — by two — in Saint Joseph’s gym. The Indians have to be better than they were in January if they want to extend their season for another day in March.

That doesn’t just mean Konieczny has to deliver. It’s Futa. It’s Terry. It’s Hatkevich. It’s everybody.

On Monday, the players were handed one sheet of white paper with a heading of “TIME HAS ARRIVED” across the top. It was a postseason note from Johnson. In it, he asks the Indians to put aside any self-doubt, any worry, any anxiety over the next game possibly being the last game. Trust in the work they’ve put in over the past few months. Trust in their teammates. Trust in their game. Go out and have fun. Focus. Compete. Don’t run from the opportunity to do something that the Indians haven’t done since 2015 (win a sectional).

“It’s the best time of the year,” Johnson said. “There’s nothing else we’re going to do but enjoy it. Embrace it. Believe, and then go out and do your best.”

Time for the Indians to do what Konieczny did that first day he drove to school — enjoy the ride.

South Bend Saint Joseph junior JR Konieczny has learned about being a known guy since his commitment to Notre Dame last summer.