Men's Basketball: Power forward's return key for what will be veteran Irish core

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Jan 17, 2022; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Nate Laszewski (14) passes the ball as Howard Bison forward Randall Brumant (left) defends during the first half at Burr Gymnasium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Asked via text message late Wednesday, with the decision deadline quickly closing, if he planned to return to Notre Dame for his super-senior season, power forward Nate Laszewski responded in a very succinct/Nate Laszewski way.

"Yup."

With that, a key piece to the 2022-23 Notre Dame men’s basketball puzzle – arguably the most important remaining piece – was placed. 

Laszewski, who kind of, sort of declared for the 2022 NBA draft, had until Wednesday at 11:59 p.m. to decide his immediate basketball future. Just before 10, he decided on one more run, announcing his return via social media.

"Here we go," Irish coach Mike Brey said in a text message.

For most of last season, Laszewski was considered by those close to the Irish program as an “extreme longshot” to return, right there alongside former classmate and teammate Prentiss Hubb. Like with Hubb, it may have been just time for Laszewski to do something else. 

As April became May and June neared, Laszewski’s return was somewhat expected. One day, it seemed he was coming back. The next, maybe. The day after that, doubtful. No one really knew. Or wanted to say they knew.

On Wednesday afternoon, a source close to the program said Laszewski had multiple phone conversations with the Irish coaching staff. That was an indication his decision was moving in this direction.

Still, there was no word until after sunset. Laszewski was among the final six players to announce a decision.

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Hubb and Laszewski each had options to return for their bonus COVID-19 season of eligibility in ‘22-’23. Both had been guys who considered themselves four-year college players. After their four years were up, and they were up in March when Notre Dame (24-11) was eliminated from the second round of the NCAA tournament, it was time to move on and do something else. Basketball- and life-related. 

Hubb chose that route, declining to return for one final year in favor of the next chapter of his basketball journey. Laszewski seemingly was set on a similar course. 

Laszewski was asked following Notre Dame’s senior day victory over Pittsburgh in early March whether he might want to experience another senior day – in 2023. The question seemingly caught the quiet Laszewski off guard, to the point where he actually blushed before rambling through a response about just enjoying that moment. 

In April, Laszewski ventured to Las Vegas for workouts at IMPACT training facility with former Irish guard Blake Wesley, who played one college season before declaring for the NBA draft. Laszewski – and Wesley – remained in Las Vegas while the Irish held their year-end awards night, privately, at Rolfs Hall. He did return in May for graduation.

Laszewski worked like he wanted to start his pro clock. The NBA talent-evaluators/decision-makers eventually told him otherwise. He was not among the 44 prospects extended invitations to the NBA’s G League Elite Camp in Chicago in mid-May. That camp also included fringe NBA hopefuls and former Atlantic Coast Conference standouts Keve Aluma (Virginia Tech), Buddy Boeheim (Syracuse) and Kameron McGusty (Miami, Fla.). 

Laszewski also was not invited to that week’s NBA draft combine, where 76 prospects auditioned for pro scouts. Word around the combine was that Laszewski actually was leaning toward a return to school. 

Not being invited to either was a clear indication from the NBA to Laszewski that he needs another year if he wants to improve his overall NBA game. He auditioned Monday for the Atlanta Hawks and Tuesday for the Minnesota Timberwolves. 

Jan 22, 2022; Louisville, Kentucky, USA;  Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Nate Laszewski (14) shoots against Louisville Cardinals guard Jarrod West (13) and forward Samuell Williamson (10) during the first half at KFC Yum! Center. Notre Dame defeated Louisville 82-70. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

So it’s back to Notre Dame for the 6-foot-10 power forward. In 34 games last season, Laszewski averaged 9.3 points and 6.5 rebounds in 29.0 minutes. He shot .514 percent from the field, .456 from 3 and .851 from the foul line. He started 25 of 34 games. He missed one game in early February with a lower leg contusion suffered while doing something he did best last season – taking a charge. 

As well as Laszewski performed on the offensive end, he arguably was the team’s most valuable player on the defensive end. Veteran guard Cormac Ryan often guarded the other team’s best perimeter player, but Laszewski often guarded everybody. He finished fourth in the ACC for defensive rebounds (5.8). He finished with career highs for blocks (18) and steals (17). He rotated over and often took charges. He guarded his guy. He guarded other guys’ guys. He was the quarterback in the Irish halfcourt defense that improved to the point where they earned their first NCAA tournament berth since 2017. 

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Laszewski earned votes for the league’s all-defensive team. He played some of his best basketball in March, finishing with 12 points and 10 rebounds for his fifth double-double against Virginia Tech in an ACC quarterfinal game. Against Rutgers in the NCAA First Four, Laszewski came off the bench for 18 points and six rebounds. He had 10 points and six rebounds in the first-round win over Alabama. 

Being back at Notre Dame also means Laszewski will be back in the starting lineup. His return was paramount, given that the team’s main low-post threat last season – Paul Atkinson, Jr., – exhausted his eligibility after his only year in South Bend. Junior-to-be power forward Elijah Taylor, a potential frontcourt rotation player next season, transferred to Quinnipiac. Notre Dame has come up short – for now – in finding a suitable/capable big man in the transfer portal. 

The same day Laszewski announced his return, former Penn power forward Michael Wang was on an official visit to Notre Dame. Wang averaged 6.4 points and 2.1 rebounds in 15.1 minutes over eight games for the Quakers last season. He missed the 2019-20 season with knee issues and the 2020-21 season after the Ivy League canceled all its athletic competition because of the coronavirus. 

Notre Dame was on the short list of former Wright State power forward Grant Basile, who eventually chose Virginia Tech, in part because he reportedly looked and saw a logjam in the Irish frontcourt. The Irish staff continues to monitor the portal for a possible big man, but time is running short with summer school starting June 13. Notre Dame still could add a big in July or August, but summer school is a crucial time for player development. 

Laszewski’s return likely means Notre Dame moves forward with a space/pace starting lineup featuring four guards – veterans Dane Goodwin and Ryan, Niagara transfer Marcus Hammond and freshman J.J. Starling, a McDonald’s All-American and a Top 20 five-star recruit from La Lumiere School in nearby LaPorte. 

Laszewski would be the team’s lone starting big, which means Brey will lean on a lineup that features five shooters. The bench looks to feature a rotation of veteran guard Trey Wertz, a fellow super senior and junior-to-be power forward Matt Zona, who played sparingly his first two seasons. Rising sophomore J.R. Konieczny, who could be a hybrid guard/forward and freshman power forward Ven-Allen Lubin, may also factor into the minutes mix. Lubin might get an early chance to compete for frontcourt minutes. 

The Irish roster currently carries 11 available scholarship players, two shy of the NCAA maximum. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.