J.R. Konieczny is a better basketball player, but not there yet, maybe not this year

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Notre Dame's J.R. Konieczny during practice Tuesday, July 19, 2022 at the Rolfs Athletics Hall in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — As summer school ended and members of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team scattered for a few weeks before the start of fall semester, sophomore swingman J.R. Konieczny was offered advice by the coaching staff in the simplest and most supportive of terms. 

Go away. 

Not in a pack your (stuff) and find another program where you could squeeze out some minutes kind of way. No, the former South Bend Saint Joseph High School standout who could do as he pleased during his prep senior season remains part of the Irish plans. The coaches didn’t want him to go for good. 

Rather, they encouraged Konieczny to consider spending a week in August on a foreign tour as part of the USA East Coast (formerly the East Coast All-Stars), a collection of current college players who see Europe for a week while playing three games against high level/professional teams. Plenty of Irish have made the annual excursion. Jack Cooley did. So did Juwan Durham and Tom Knight. And Scott Martin and Rex Pflueger. Current super senior Dane Goodwin also toured with East Coast. 

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When the idea was floated to Konieczny, he was immediately intrigued. He could’ve spent the rest of the summer resting a high-ankle sprain while working on his game back home in nearby Granger at the Barn (if you know, you know). Konieczny wanted something more. He wanted to compete. First, for two days in New York City in training camp and then for a week in Barcelona. 

“I was 100 percent in when they told me,” Konieczny said. “I was like, that sounds like a great opportunity. I was definitely interested in that. I was on board.” 

On board, then aboard a flight to Spain in early August to do something that Konieczny didn’t much do during his freshman season — get some real-game minutes. 

After seldom leaving the court as a prep senior — he averaged 28.2 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.4 steals to earn Northern Indiana Conference most valuable player honors over a former NIC and Notre Dame guy named Blake Wesley — Konieczny seldom set foot on it last season. He logged 22 total minutes over seven games. He scored 11 points with one rebound and one assist — numbers usually good for a quarterback in high school. 

Able to play more overseas, Konieczny did more. In one game, he finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds. He grabbed 10 more rebounds in another. He scored only a little (6.0 ppg over three games) but he played a lot. In the process, he also rediscovered who he is — and who he can be — at the college level. 

He lost some of that identity last season while sitting and watching and waiting. That was hard. This summer, being able to break a sweat and compete, a lot felt easy. 

Konieczny needed the foreign tour for myriad reasons. The high left ankle sprain suffered when he landed after grabbing a rebound and feeling something pop, cost him much of summer. He couldn’t get the ankle right, so he couldn’t much practice. Last one in July, he hobbled out from the training room into the pre-practice huddle, then watched the workout from the bench. 

He needed to again feel the game in Spain. He did. 

“It gave me the confidence back in my game that I needed, for sure,” Konieczny said. “It was amazing to go out there, play against professional athletes and be able to win every single game. 

“It opened my eyes to the different opportunities that I have on the basketball court.” 

Mainly, that he can be more than just a guard, which is what Konieczny strictly considered himself last season. He was a 6-foot-7, string-bean with zero bulk. Battling on the boards in Spain allowed Konieczny to see himself on another side of the game. He was more than a guard. He could rebound. He could defend. He could do some of the dirty-work stuff. 

He could be a basketball player. 

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Now in preseason camp, Konieczny splits time between the perimeter and bigs during drills. He’ll work on his wing 3, then go to the other end and tinker with some post moves. After a year in which he didn’t do much of anything, he can offer a little of everything. 

“I’m more of a basketball player,” he said. “The coaches have done a great job of putting me in different spots and seeing me thrive in different positions. That's helped me become a better player.” 

That was the entire point of the go-away edict — Notre Dame believes in Konieczny, so it wants to maximize his development. Nurture it. Grow it. Going overseas for that week was the next step in that becoming-a-really-good-college-player process. It can be a long process. 

“We sent him to Spain to invest in him,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “You don’t send a guy on a (foreign) tour unless you think he’s going to be a really good player for you.” 

That’s what the Irish think of Konieczny, though his chance to show it may not come this year. 

At all. 

Konieczny is smart enough to do the minutes math. He’s still considered a guard/swingman in the big picture, and that big picture currently is really cramped. Ahead of him on the perimeter depth chart are five others. Four (Goodwin, Marcus Hammond, Cormac Ryan, Trey Wertz) have each played over 100 career games and scored over 1,000 career points. They all have to play. A fifth – freshman J.J. Starling — is too talented not to be in the rotation. He has to play. 

The chances that Brey’s guard/perimeter rotation goes six players deep on a routine basis are slim and none. Really, none. Konieczny can sit and watch and play little for a second straight season, or consider Door No. 2. 

He can sit out 2022-23 as a redshirt, retain a year of eligibility and be ready to be a three-year main guy next season when all those super seniors leave. 

He would use this year to work on his game and continue to build his frame. Another winter in the Tony Rolinski strength and conditioning lab would be good for Konieczny. He’s already put on 10 pounds and is up to 202. Ten more and he could be something special. He still would work every day against a group of veterans that aren’t going to give up their spots — or minutes — anytime soon. 

So, is redshirting a consideration? 

“It definitely is,” Konieczny said. “I’d be interested in it for sure — get older, stronger, watch these guys play.” 

Brey and Konieczny will have to have the redshirt talk sometime before the Nov. 10 season opener. He already has had the Tim Abromaitis talk with Konieczny. Had it during the recruiting process. The former Irish swingman played 40 total minutes as a freshman, then sat as a redshirt his sophomore season. His final two seasons, he played over 1,100 minutes each year and was as good as anyone in the Big East. 

Brey sees a lot of a young Abro in a young Konieczny. So does Konieczny. 

“He was able to produce when he played,” he said. “Just be patient and take my opportunity whenever I get it.” 

Konieczny will get it. It’s just a matter of when. His game looks a lot like that of a young Kyle Kuric, the former Louisville swingman. He can score it, like Kuric did. He can rebound, like Kuric did. And he’s crazy athletic, like Kuric, but three inches taller. Get to a game early and watch Konieczny work through some of his layup-line dunks. You'll be impressed. 

If Konieczny keeps doing what he did through the first 13 practices — Brey said he was one of the team’s leading rebounders — he might play this season. 

“He’s active; he’s all over the place,” Brey said. “I just want him to keep fighting and scratching because this is a long five months here.” 

That’s cool, because Konieczny’s still here. He doesn’t want to go anywhere else. 

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