Noie: Notre Dame men's basketball secures a keeper in home-grown Konieczny

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — If the last Friday in February raised a question about what Notre Dame saw in the only men’s basketball prospect to sign a letter of intent when the early period opened Wednesday, the first Friday in March provided an answer.

Let’s start with that February game at Mishawaka High School for South Bend Saint Joseph small forward J.R. Konieczny, who made everything official Wednesday afternoon in the theater of the school that sits a mile from his future one.

At 6-foot-7 and 170 pounds, the four-star prospect who’s been ranked as high as No. 82 nationally was easily the most skilled, most talented, most everything player on the floor of The Cave that night in a late-season Northern Indiana Conference contest. He was the best shooter. He was the best rebounder. He had the best court sense. He could lace up his Columbia Blue and white sneakers and tumble into 25 points. He could play inside. He could play outside. He could play.

Then the game rolled around. Instead of taking over, Konieczny operated in the shadows. He kind of drifted around the perimeter. He didn’t hunt his shot, or seek out undersized and overmatched defenders to pick on in the post. He played a solid game, but one void of the intensity you expect from someone who’d soon call the Atlantic Coast Conference home.

You left the gym that night wondering exactly what Notre Dame saw in Konieczny, who committed to coach Mike Brey in August of 2019. Was it just an off night for someone who’d finish his junior year averaging 23.5 points per game? Konieczny was kind of a blank slate. The color across the canvas would start to fill in over the next week.

Swinging by a Saint Joe practice three days after that game against Mishawaka when he’d scored 10 quiet points, you saw what the Irish staff saw so early in the recruiting process in Konieczny. He had a look about him in that Monday workout that he didn’t have that previous game. There was one drill where the Indians would take an outlet pass from a teammate near midcourt, then take several dribbles and shoot it from the 3-point line.

When it was Konieczny’s turn, he’d take a dribble or two, pull up and drain shots from just inside halfcourt. Jumper…swish. Jumper….swish. Each one was effortless. Pure. At one point, Saint Joe coach Mark Johnson stopped the drill and asked aloud to no one in particular if they were taking game-like shots. No? Then shoot it like you’d shoot it in the game.

Message sent. Message received. Next time down, Konieczny added a few dribbles to his run, worked closer to the 3-point line and kept knocking down shots. Sectional playoffs were starting that week, and Konieczny knew that he had to bring it.

He’d bring it.

In a sectional semifinal against rival Marian over in Elkhart County, Konieczny played like a Division I prospect is supposed to play. He made shots from all of the spots. He rebounded. He competed. He had the look about him that said once he got the ball, he knew what to do with it.

On a night when he had to deliver for the Indians to have any chance against an opponent that was just better, he delivered. When the semifinal game went final that Friday night at Jimtown High School, Saint Joseph saw its 17-6 season end with a 68-66 overtime loss. Konieczny had gone for a game-high 42 points. He took 24 shots. He made 16. He took eight 3s. He made five. He was as big-time as big-time gets.

Somewhere in the buzzing gym, Irish associate head coach Rod Balanis likely smiled. Like, yeah, that’s why he’s a Notre Dame man.

Five days later, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus, the pandemic hit and the sports world turned upside down. That included Konieczny’s basketball offseason. He tried to play a normal AAU schedule, but was shut down for two weeks after contracting coronavirus. He never saw the inside of a gym at Notre Dame. Had it not been a pandemic, he basically would’ve lived over at Rolfs Hall in the summer. He’d get up shots. He’d play pickup with the returning Irish. He’d learn about what it takes to be a Division I guy.

Instead, the campus went on lockdown. Konieczny worked on his own to get his game.

“Just getting back to the grind,” he said. “I was able to stay in the gym.”

On Wednesday, Konieczny became the latest of Notre Dame’s all-too-familiar one-man recruiting classes. That may change in the coming weeks (hello, Blake Wesley?), but for now, Konieczny’s it. Brey’s no stranger to one-man classes. Find the one guy you really want, and get him. It worked out pretty well in 2003 with former power forward Rob Kurz. It worked out really well in 2010 with former small forward Pat Connaughton. It didn’t work out in 2016 with former swingman D.J. Harvey, who battled injury and ineffectiveness for two years before transferring to Vanderbilt.

“Our staff has watched him grow up in this town and get better since he was 13 years old,” Irish coach Mike Brey said Wednesday, the first day he could comment on Konieczny. “He has worked to become a 6-7 guard who can shoot, handle the ball and has a great feel for the game. He is a perfect fit for how we like to play.”

When he moves into his dorm in June for summer school (hopefully), he’ll join a veteran team with a veteran core that (again, hopefully) knows what it’s like to have ACC success. He won’t need to step into a starting spot right away. But a big senior season and a crash course with strength and conditioning coach Tony Rolinski may accelerate that timetable.

Konieczny has the same wiry frame/perimeter stroke as former Irish swingman V.J. Beachem, who scored 1,234 career points in 3,068 minutes over 132 career games. If he’s at least that good, that’s a pretty good start.

After signing Wednesday, Konieczny kept checking his watch. A letter-of-intent ceremony was held at Saint Joseph, but the boys’ basketball team’s second practice of the season would soon start. Konieczny insisted Wednesday felt like just any other day, partly because he’s been committed to play at Notre Dame for so long. His senior season (hopefully) starts Dec. 1 at Concord.

“It’s such a relief to have it final,” he said. “I’m looking forward to practice in 10 minutes.”

Practice, then a season, then an ACC future up the road. However it all unfolds, this much is certain — the kid can play.

South Bend Saint Joseph senior small forward JR Konieczny has been committed to Notre Dame since August 2019. On Wednesday, he signed his national letter of intent.