Two-sport star Connaughton has sights set on the NBA

The prevailing opinion that former Notre Dame guard/fireballing righthander Pat Connaughton prefers baseball over basketball has dogged him like a cranky debt collector for at least the last five years, so much so that Connaughton has had to stage a couple of high-profile public displays of hoops skill to convince people otherwise.

The latest came last week at the NBA’s Chicago pre-draft combine, where Connaughton set the Twitterverse ablaze with the hashtag #WhiteMenCanJump after soaring to a 44-inch max vertical leap, easily the best in the combine and tied for second all-time. Connaughton also aced the combine’s other skills tests, and lest anyone say that measureables do not a basketball player make, he was also 2-0 in combine games. Teams on which Connaughton competes always seem to win.

That is not a coincidence.

Anyone who’s seen the 6-foot-5, 215-pound Connaughton play basketball already knows about those crazy hops, his deadly accuracy from 3-point range, his willingness to guard anyone from a cat-quick point guard to a 7-foot center, his uncanny rebounding prowess—he racked up 10 double-figure rebound games this season—and his leadership. And then there’s the critical ingredient that ties it all together.

”He is the cruelest of competitors,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said during the NCAA Tournament. “Nice guy off the court. But he will cut your heart out on it.”

So, before Chicago, why was a guy like this nowhere to be found among the many mock drafts? Part of it has to do with Connaughton’s skill with a baseball in his right hand. Some people just can’t wrap their arms around the fact that Connaughton—who spent last summer with the Baltimore Orioles’ Class A short-season team, the Aberdeen IronBirds—is willing to pass up making millions as a starting pitcher whose fast ball averages in the low 90s and has touched 98.

Make no mistake about this. Connaughton, who received a $400,000 bonus after the Orioles chose him in the fourth round of the 2014 amateur draft, is more than willing to pass up baseball money. He’s already done that, in fact, because he made it clear to every MLB team that he planned on returning to Notre Dame to finish out his basketball eligibility in 2014-15. That cost him a sure spot in the first round, and the seven-figure sum that would have accompanied it.

Why?

One reason is because money doesn’t motivate Connaughton the way it does some people. The other is because he loves basketball, always has and always will.

Connaughton has spent a few years trying to prove that. His attention-grabbing deeds of high-flying fancy at Chicago were like déjà vu to him, uncannily reminiscent of the summer of 2010. That’s when, during the month of July, he went from having one basketball scholarship offer, from Division II Bentley University, to being pursued by UCLA, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Stanford … pretty much the school of any coach who attended back-to-back AAU tournaments, including the nationals, in Orlando, Fla. and watched in slack-jawed wonder as Connaughton averaged 30 points and 20 boards in 12 games.

But by that time, it was way too late for any other school not named Notre Dame. In a perfect world, Connaughton, from Arlington, Mass., would have committed to Boston College in the eighth grade, honored that commitment come what may and played four years in front of his many friends and family members. But a BC offer didn’t come until late in the process, after the Fighting Irish had already acted on a chance connection to secure Connaughton’s services.

The connection was threadbare, a couple of degrees removed from the source. Connaughton’s AAU coach, Michael Crotty, Jr., had helped Division III Williams College win a national championship in 2003. One of his teammates there was John Fitzgerald, whose sister went to school at Notre Dame, where she met and married one of Brey’s assistant coaches, Martin Inglesby.

That was the opening Crotty had when he reached out to Notre Dame.

“I called [Inglesby] and said, ‘I’ve got a player who’s the toughest guy I ever coached,’ ” Crotty said. “He’s terrific. I can’t tell you I’ve coach 10 Big East players, and he’s the best one I’ve ever had, but he can play.”

Inglesby passed that information to fellow Notre Dame assistant Rod Balanis, who used to work at Colgate and had recruited a few of Crotty’s players. But Balanis knew Crotty’s AAU program, the Middlesex Magic, wasn’t elite, and that it turned out more D-II and D-III players than those who could compete in the Big East, where Notre Dame resided before switching to the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013-14.

“When you’re at our level, you get a million calls through the years,” Balanis said, laughing at the thought, “from people who say they’ve got this kid that can play. But every call we get or video we’re sent, we try to take a look. Michael called and said ‘I’ve got a player for you, this tough-ass Irish Catholic kid. He’s going to be picked high in the Major League Baseball draft. But he’s getting better in hoops, and if you get a chance to take a look in July, you should.’ ”

It so happened that Balanis was headed to an AAU tournament in Springfield, Mass. in which the Magic was playing. Connaughton, who grew up wearing Notre Dame gear, quickly spotted Balanis’ shirt in the crowd.

“I’ve always prided myself on rising to the occasion,” Connaughton said. “Not many things get me nervous. But when I knew Notre Dame was there, I didn’t play my best game. We actually lost, and I had a turnover at the end of the game that caused us to lose.”

Connaughton thought that was the end of his chance to play at Notre Dame. But Balanis liked what he saw, and followed the Magic to the rundown gym where its next game was to be played.

“You lose a game in an AAU tournament, you don’t play in the same facility,” Connaughton said. “This gym didn’t even have glass backboards; they were metal with an extra big square. I couldn’t believe it, but coach Balanis was there. I had some dunks, made some 3s, and we won by a lot. I was hoping that set me up, and he’d come back to watch me in nationals [in Orlando].”

Crotty, who learned how to be a great AAU coach from his late father, Michael Crotty, Sr., left nothing to chance. When Balanis followed his visit to Springfield with an email, Crotty answered it quickly.

“Rod emailed me and said, ‘thanks coach, he’s one tough SOB,’ ” Crotty said. “I wrote back and said, ‘thank you, but I’m not sure what that means. Does it mean he can play in the Big East?’ And he wrote back and said, ‘it means coach Brey and I will be in Orlando.’ ”

True to his word, Balanis brought Brey to Orlando.

“I told Mike go watch this kid play,” Balanis said. “If you think he’s not good enough, he’s not good enough. So we go watch Pat’s first game, and he was phenomenal again. With his length and bounce, he was dunking and pinning stuff on the glass. Mike says, ‘How did no one [in Division I] recruit this kid?’ Then Pat started going off in the tournament, and all kinds of high major schools were on him.”

Balanis fretted about that, until he got a call from Crotty. “Pat fits the way you guys play,” Crotty told an elated Balanis.

Next came the first clue of Connaughton’s future intentions, if anyone had been paying attention. Baseball America rated him the No. 33 prospect in MLB’s 2010 amateur draft, but Connaughton told every team that he planned on honoring his basketball scholarship to Notre Dame. He was chosen in the 38th round.

But baseball wasn’t completely out of Connaughton’s system. One of the reasons he chose Notre Dame was that Brey agreed to let him play both sports. And, in another chance connection, the former baseball coach at Boston College, Mik Aoki, had switched to Notre Dame.

“When the dust settled after Orlando, it was in my best interest trying to go somewhere I could excel in two sports, and earn a degree that meant something,” Connaughton said. “Coach Brey said we’d find a way to make it work. And knowing [Aoki], who I was familiar with from BC, made it that much easier to make work.

In his first two seasons at Notre Dame, Connaughton found work as a defensive stopper, “in order to get on the floor,” he said. In 2013-14, Connaughton’s game rose to another level as Notre Dame began competing in the ACC, but that first season in a new league was a struggle. Notre Dame finished 15-17 overall and 6-12 in the league.

Simultaneous to his basketball career at South Bend, Connaughton played baseball well enough to convince MLB scouts he was an elite prospect, In three seasons as a mostly weekend starting pitcher, he compiled an 11-11 record with a 3.03 ERA and struck out 105 in 154.2 innings. Those numbers were enough to make Connaughton a projected first-round draft pick, but that 15-17 season in basketball wasn’t the way he wanted to leave things at Notre Dame.

Despite the fact Connaughton made his intentions clear about playing his final season of basketball, Baltimore took a chance on him in the fourth round. Sent to Florida for a two-week session during which the Orioles tweaked his delivery, thus adding more heat and consistency to his pitches, Connaughton spent the rest of the summer riding buses with the IronBirds. In four starts and six appearances, he crafted a 2.45 ERA and struck out 10 in 14 2/3 innings.

But even as he was fine-tuning his baseball skills, Connaughton was worried about his basketball team back in South Bend. During one bus ride with the IronBirds, his cell phone buzzed with activity. Jerian Grant, the Irish’s senior point guard, had been trying to set up pickup games, but several players texted back excuses why they couldn’t play. Connaughton intervened with a text to his teammates that, in no uncertain terms, told everyone they had better follow Grant’s lead and get to those games.

That could have been the initial catalyst for a season for the ages. Notre Dame finished 32-6, won the ACC Tournament and advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight, where it barely lost to mighty Kentucky, which at the time was trying to complete an undefeated season.

Connaughton put together his best year yet, even leading the Irish in rebounding and blocked shots, but though he made the occasional highlight reel dunk or block, Notre Dame had plenty of other weapons Brey could utilize.

“I didn’t have to show off my athleticism,” said Connaughton, who logged a lot of minutes as an undersized power forward. “I had a role, and I was very happy playing my role because winning was the most important thing to me. To have the ball in my hands wasn’t what made our offense the most efficient.”

Thus, after Notre Dame lost by an agonizing two points to Kentucky, the baseball rumors began again. Surely now, some scouts and draft analysts thought, Connaughton would lay his basketball career to rest and get back to the Orioles, where, once he filtered through the minor leagues, millions of dollars awaited him as a starting pitcher. But Connaughton was determined to give the NBA a shot, and he did it blue-collar style. Would a hardnosed Irish Catholic kid from Boston have it any other way?

Connaughton played in the Portsmouth Invitational and performed well enough to be invited to Chicago. And there, just like he did as a high school player in AAU tournaments five years ago, his physical tools were on display. His NBA stock is on the rise, and it will only increase during the next five weeks, when general managers realize he’s the real deal, on the court and off, and that, for now, baseball can wait.

“Right now, I’m 100 percent basketball,” Connaughton said. “I want to play it until a team kicks me off an NBA roster and no one else wants me. When and if that time comes, I’ll be happy to at least say I gave it a shot.”

And baseball will be waiting. The Orioles own his rights for the next six years. Connaughton hasn’t discounted even trying to pull a Deion Sanders and play two pro sports in the same year, but not until he’s established himself in the NBA.

Those who know Connaughton best say the NBA holds a place for him.

“No question about it, Balanis said. “No doubt in my mind. He just does what it takes to win. Look at one of his games [in Chicago]. They’re up one. He gets switched on [super quick former Connecticut guard] Ryan Boatright. Pat keeps him in front and challenges him, and his team wins the game. He’s a very valuable guy to have on your team.”

Crotty, who spent three years working for the Boston Celtics in player development and learned from one of the game’s great skills instructors, Kevin Eastman, is now serving as Connaughton’s workout coach. He knows Connaughton needs to improve his ball handling and shore up a couple of other areas, but he’s convinced the guy he regards as a younger brother will be on an NBA roster by next fall.

“I’d never bet against him,” Crotty said. “Doubters are everywhere. They’ve been there every step of the way for this kid. And all he’s done is blow them out of the water. If the door is opened even an inch for Pat, he’ll go barreling through it. And he’ll take whatever he can get.”






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