Nate Laszewski took the 5th, and aims for it to pay off this college basketball season
SOUTH BEND — Over in the corner of a quiet Rolfs Hall practice court, the even quieter power forward sat and did something for an extended period that he rarely is asked or wants to do.
About his spring fling with a chance to chase his professional basketball dream. About the decision to return for a super senior year (thanks, COVID-19) and become even more of a main guy in coach Mike Brey’s system. About the season that lay ahead and the plans that he and his fellow fifth-year seniors have made.
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It was late July, and the Notre Dame men’s basketball team had wrapped its final summer workout. In a few hours, power forward Nate Laszewski would pack his stuff and head to the family home in Northern Wisconsin. There, a date with a fishing boat and a pole and a lake beckoned before he had to be back on campus in a few weeks and the start of the fall semester.
What was Laszewski even doing back at Rolfs in July? For the longest time last season, one that ended with Notre Dame going 24-11 overall, winning a school record 15 games in the Atlantic Coast Conference and getting back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017, the word on Laszewski from those who would know was that there were two chances he’d exercise that super senior year option — slim and none.
In November, word from inside the program was that Laszewski was an “extreme longshot” to return. Same for January and February and March, even as the madness neared. Extreme longshot. Same for spring, when Laszewski lit out for Las Vegas to work with a personal trainer on his NBA audition. Extreme longshot.
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Even as the June 1 deadline to declare whether to go or stay loomed — it was only hours away — it looked and sounded like Laszewski was not coming back. He’d played his four years. He’d graduated in four years. It was time to do something else. To close one chapter of his basketball life and open another, wherever that might lead.
He seemed ready, super senior year or no super senior year.
“I think there were a couple times when he did not want to come back; he was ready to move on,” Brey said. “He was tired of college. Done that. I said, I get it. I get it.”
Laszewski worked out for two NBA teams — the Atlanta Hawks and the Minnesota Timberwolves. The second was on the eve of the deadline decision. He was gone. Then, maybe he wasn’t. In the end, he decided there was too much unfinished business for him in South Bend.
“Going through the process was big for me,” Laszewski said. “When it came down to it, I just felt like it was a great situation for me here. Talking with Coach Brey, coming back and getting a Master’s was a big deal. There were a lot of plusses here.
“I felt like we had still more work to do. That was a big part of it.”
A chance to do, show even more
That work for Laszewski, one of four team captains, ramps up Thursday when Notre Dame becomes the last of the ACC’s 15 teams to begins the regular season when it hosts Radford (8 p.m., ACC Network). Laszewski enters his final season having done a ton the previous four. He's scored 1,126 career points. He has 688 rebounds and 177 made 3s. He’s logged 3,091 minutes in 125 games.
For the first time in his college career, the 6-foot-10, 230-pound Laszewski is the guy in the low post. Juwan Durham’s gone. Paul Atkinson’s gone. It’s Laszewski’s turn to start many an Irish offensive possession by getting a touch near the rim.
On the couple of occasions that Brey ventured to Las Vegas to check in on Laszewski, he made sure to mention that if he returned, he’d get more of those chances. More opportunities. More.
“There’s more of a platform for him,” Brey said. “He’s been more aggressive. When he was thinking about, do I go, do I stay, (I said), ‘If you come back, you can take a bad shot every now and then.’”
First time out this season in the team’s lone exhibition game — Laszewski sat out the secret scrimmage at DePaul because of sprained ankle — Laszewski showed his low-post skills. Notre Dame established him early. He scored nine points the first six-plus minutes. He finished with 12 points, three rebounds and three blocks.
There were times that night when the Irish might’ve leaned on him too much. They do that a lot Thursday and moving forward, he might be running on fumes by February.
Still, his game is about more than just being the low-post guy. He’s worked to be more effective in different spots. Like shooting it quicker off the catch. Getting to the mid-range. Handling it. Creating a little. Get fouled and get more to the foul line.
Through the first dozen preseason practices, no one took more shots than Laszewski.
“I love that he’s done that,” Brey said. “He’s just been really aggressive like, ‘I’m going to go for it and get more shots.’ He has a little different presence about him,”
Laszewski remains a defensive cornerstone. The guy who doesn’t talk much off the court is the group’s best defensive communicator on it. Like a traffic cop directing everyone where to go and making sure it all flows.
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That won’t change this season. Defensively, Laszewski embraces it on a scale that few do. He guards. He rotates. He rebounds. He’ll battle fellow captain Cormac Ryan for the team lead in charges taken. He competes.
“Nate is such an unselfish defender,” Brey said. “He’s such a great anchor there.”
As an old guy, Laszewski also has to be there for the young guys. Last couple years, he was the No. 2 guy and delivered. This year freshman Ven-Allen Lubin rotates into that No. 2 spot alongside Laszewski, who has served as his mentor prepping for ACC life in the low post.
“I really look up to him and his game and his poise and confidence,” Lubin said. “I really want to play that role.”
For those months in Nevada, Laszewski carried himself like a pro. He didn’t return to campus for the year-end team celebration because in his mind, if he was going to do that NBA dance, he was going to do it with everything he had. Being half in or half out wouldn’t benefit anyone.
“When you go into the gym every day and compete against guys who are pros, guys who are first-round draft picks, you have to have that mindset that you are a pro,” Laszewski said. “That was a big change.”
Coming back wasn’t, even when he didn’t hear what he wanted to hear from NBA types. He wasn’t guaranteed that his game would translate right away to the NBA. It might be G-League ready at best. Or overseas.
“The big thing I told myself was never to look at it as a decision,” he said. “There were great options either way. It was nothing negative that I had to think about.”
One positive about returning was teaming with Ryan and fellow super senior Dane Goodwin to make another run to the NCAA tournament. March was too fun to not experience again.
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“Once you have a taste of it, you want more of it,” Laszewski said. “We realized what that’s all about and had so much fun with it last year. We all want to get back there again and go even further.”
Starting a regular season that could be something special, Laszewski is confident he made the right decision to do this college stuff another year. He’s known it from that first practice in July.
“Seeing what we were going to be like,” he said, “it felt right.”
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.
MEN’S BASKETBALL GAMEDAY
- WHO: Notre Dame (0-0) vs. Radford (0-1)
- WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).
- WHEN: Thursday at 8 p.m.
- TICKETS: Plenty available.
- TV: ACC Network
- RADIO: WSBT (960 AM).
- ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com/tnoieNDI
- NOTING: Guard Kenyon Giles scored 15 points on 7-of-11 from the field in 32 reserve minutes and small forward Saquan Jules added 10 points and 11 rebounds in Monday’s 79-69 loss at Marquette. The Highlanders trailed by as many as 10 and were down three with 13 minutes to play. Radford finished 5-of-25 (20 percent) from 3 and held Marquette to 26.3 percent (5-of-19) from 3. The Golden Eagles scored 42 points in the paint, but had zero field goals the final 6:15. ...Radford returns one starter off a team that won four of its last six to finish 11-18 overall, 7-9 and tied for third in the Big South North Division last year. The Highlanders finished 124th in the nation last season for scoring defense (67.4 ppg.) and 330th for scoring offense (63.2). … Radford lost 13 of 16 players off last year’s squad. This year’s squad features eight transfers, including former Villanova guard Bryan Antoine, a McDonald’s All-American and Top 15 recruit. Antonie had seven points, two rebounds and an assist in 23 minutes vs. Marquette. … Darris Nichols is in his second season as Radford head coach. He played at West Virginia (2004-08) at the same time as Irish assistant coach Hamlet Tibbs served as a student manager with the Mountaineers. … Radford is a public school with an enrollment of 9,000 located in Radford, Virginia. It was picked by league coaches this preseason to finish tied for sixth place in the 10-team Big South … Radford has seven victories over Power Five/High Major programs in its history, including a 63-60 win at Notre Dame on Nov. 14, 2018, when current Irish super seniors Robby Carmody, Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski were freshmen. …. Notre Dame was picked in preseason to finish sixth in the 15-team Atlantic Coast Conference. … This starts a stretch of four home games in nine days for Notre Dame, which returns to action Sunday (4 p.m.) against Youngstown State.
- QUOTING: “I don’t give a (crap) what we run as long as we share the ball and know what a good shot is. And you know what? Our five old guys get that. I don’t care what we run. You guys know what our culture is offensively.” — Head coach Mike Brey, set to start his 23rd season at Notre Dame
— Tom Noie