Noie: Exhibition aside, Notre Dame PF Paul Atkinson finally gets to play basketball again

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Notre Dame needs a big effort from Yale transfer Paul Atkinson if the Irish are to enjoy a big season.

SOUTH BEND — Schedule a Notre Dame men’s basketball game on the eve of a home football contest and the idea of watching guys go up and down on the floor in Purcell Pavilion is dismissed as quickly as the Irish ripping off a Final Four run. 

Yeah, right. 

Right? 

Casual observers might swing through after the football pep rally or before a late dinner at Rocco’s. The prevailing attitude might be, the heck with it, let’s go grab a beverage or two or three at the Linebacker. After all, it’s October, and it’s only an exhibition. 

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Don’t tell Notre Dame graduate transfer/power forward Paul Atkinson that Friday’s game against Division III Nazareth (N.Y.) College is only an exhibition. After what he’s been through the past 20 months, he’s not about to take any game for granted. 

For Atkinson, who played three seasons at Yale and earned co-player of the year in the Ivy League following the 2019-20 season, the chance to again step on a basketball court with guys in other jerseys and fans in the stands and referees and the scoreboards on is a huge deal. Thanks to the global pandemic, which wiped out the entire 2020-21 season in the Ivy League, Atkinson has not participated in a true college game since he scored 23 points with six rebounds in 33 minutes when Yale lost to Harvard on March 7, 2020. 

When he’s introduced as one of the five starters a little before 7 on Friday night, it will be 601 days since Atkinson last played in an actual game. It’s been a long, strange trip. 

“It feels good to get back in here and start playing again,” Atkinson said when he arrived in June. 

The Irish weren’t scheduled back on campus until the middle of that month, but Atkinson’s business school graduate program started a week earlier. He actually arrived two days early because he couldn’t wait to get settled, couldn’t wait to feel like a college basketball player again, couldn’t wait to realize a whole new basketball world was opening up for him. 

Basketball practice is the closest Yale transfer Paul Atkinson has been to a real game in way too long. That changes Friday for Notre Dame.

Rolfs Hall — the team’s stand-alone basketball facility — was a revelation. The practice floor, the locker room, the common areas, the weight room, the training facilities, the resources all were overwhelming. Heck, Atkinson even was floored by the smoothie/nutrition station on the building’s lower level, which allowed him to go and make a shake or grab a snack whenever he wanted.  

“It’s blown his mind,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. 

“It’s a lot different,” Atkinson said. 

Different than what he had to navigate during his last year at Yale. No athletics basically meant no being an athlete. The basketball team wasn’t allowed to practice or even work out on campus. Atkinson and his teammates often were left to hoop at a nearby Boys and Girls Club. The lighting was dull. The rims were worn. The court wasn’t even regulation size. It was more fit for high school. It was rough, but Atkinson made it work.

When he arrived at Notre Dame, he carried 215 pounds on his 6-foot-9 frame. Atkinson was listed at 220 pounds his final season at Yale. He’s now up to 235 in preparation for his first season at Notre Dame and last in college basketball.  

“Everything feels a lot better than it did before the season,” Atkinson said. “It’s been good to get back in (the gym) and actually start working out consistently and getting reps in and shoot whenever I want.” 

A big man to fill a big need 

Barely a month into last season, Brey already was thinking/planning ahead to this one. Notre Dame would need to fill a vacancy in the frontcourt when starting power forward Juwan Durham graduated. Brey knew just what he needed. Knew who he needed. It was Atkinson, who announced in October, 2020 that he would seek a graduate transfer from Yale. 

Atkinson became Priority One for Brey. At one point, Atkinson was rated the No. 1 prospect in the transfer portal. He was a gotta-get guy for a lot of schools. When the portal eventually flooded in the spring, it was hard to find Atkinson’s name among the Top 20 or 30 or 40 key transfers. But he’s as main of a guy as main guys go this year for the Irish because of his experience and his knowledge and his size and his smarts and his age (23). 

A native of West Palm Beach, Florida, Atkinson committed to Notre Dame in early January. In February, the Ivy League announced that all graduate students in 2021 (like Atkinson) would be allowed a one-time waiver to return to their respective schools for 2021-22. 

Notre Dame power forward Paul Atkinson has been a starter since the day he set foot on campus in June.

Atkinson’s basketball ship already had sailed. He wasn’t turning it around. 

“It made no sense for them to do that at that point,” Atkinson said of the Ivy ruling. “I’d already made the commitment to Notre Dame, so I was going to follow through.” 

Brey crossed paths with Yale coach James Jones on the summer recruiting trail. The conversation quickly turned to Atkinson. 

“He said, ‘Mike, you just throw it to him and he figures out a way to score,’” Brey said. “I said, ‘Yeah, yeah. I like that. I’m starting to see it.’ He’s crafty. He’s a man.” 

Atkinson also has been a starter since that first day of summer workouts, even though there were times when he looked like an uneducated rookie, unwise to the ways of the college basketball world. First few times up and down the court at Rolfs were exhausting. Atkinson’s legs ached. His lungs burned. Not because he wasn’t prepared for life at the Atlantic Coast Conference level, but because it had been so long since he actually cut it all loose. 

Rolfs was a long way from that Boys and Girls Club back in New Haven. 

“I definitely had to get my wind back, the strength and the physicality of actually bumping bodies,” Atkinson said. “That took a while to get used to. I had a couple bumps and bruises that first week. 

He also had something else — a smile. 

“Those first couple scrimmages, just playing pickup was a lot of fun,” he said. 

The plan this season is to pair Atkinson with senior power forward Nate Laszewski and tag-team for extended stretches. They’ll offer everything the Irish need in the low post. Laszewski is more likely to look for a shot from the outside first, while Atkinson will establish himself near the rim and await an early possession touch. He looks a lot more fluid and natural around the basket than did Durham. 

Atkinson won’t block shots like Durham, but he will play solid position defense. He’ll guard. He'll talk. He’ll help. He’ll compete. 

“He’s hungry to have a year back,” Brey said. 

Nazareth is way undersized to deal with Atkinson. He may wear himself out chasing smaller guys around the perimeter. That means the Irish might have to go more to a four- and sometimes even five-guard lineup. That’s OK. There’s a chorus line of quality bigs awaiting Atkinson, be it Kofi Cockburn at Illinois, Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe and Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis in the non-league. Duke’s Paolo Banchero and Mark Williams, North Carolina’s Armando Bacot and Dawson Garcia and Virginia Tech’s Keve Aluma come calling in league play. 

All have received a lot more preseason attention than Atkinson, but don’t forget about the old guy. 

It’s been way too long, but people soon may rediscover that he still can play this game. And play it pretty well. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI

MEN’S BASKETBALL 

WHO: Notre Dame vs. Nazareth (N.Y.) College (exhibition) 

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149) 

WHEN: Friday at 7 p.m. 

TICKETS: Plenty available. Masks are mandatory for all fans attending Notre Dame men’s and women’s basketball games this season. 

TV: None. 

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM). 

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com/tnoieNDI 

NOTING: This is the first of two preseason exhibitions for Notre Dame, which opens the regular season on Nov. 13 at home against Cal State Northridge. … Nazareth is a Division III school with an enrollment of 2,800 located in Pittsford, N.Y. … Eighteen of the 19 players listed on the Nazareth roster are natives of New York state. Graduate student Dylan Sacco is from Orlando, Fla. … The roster carries one player over 6-foot-6 – 6-8 forward Jonathan Park … Nazareth finished 8-4 overall, 7-2 in the Empire 8 conference last season. … This is the Golden Flyers’ lone exhibition game. The traveling party plans to stay for Saturday’s football game between No. 11 Notre Dame and North Carolina. …  Now in his 13th season at Nazareth and a 1989 graduate, head coach Kevin Broderick will coach three of his sons, all guards, this season – Kevin, a freshman and graduate students Ryan and Brendan. … These teams have never met. … Notre Dame never has lost an exhibition (40-0) in coach Mike Brey’s previous 21 seasons. … The Irish were picked this month to finish eighth in the 15-team Atlantic Coast Conference. Notre Dame was 11-15 overall, 7-11 and 11th place in the ACC last season. … This is the first exhibition game since 2019-20 for Notre Dame. 

QUOTING: “He’s crafty. He's got good feet. He’s also smart defensively. He’s a basketball player.” 

—Notre Dame coach Mike Brey on graduate student/transfer power forward Paul Atkinson