If you’ve tuned out the NBA Finals because there’s no LeBron, no Steph Curry, and no Kyrie to boo, there’s still reason to watch the Suns against the Bucks.
It’s the local angle. A kid from Arlington is playing big minutes for the Bucks.
Pat Connaughton is running up and down the court with Giannis Antetokounmpo, guarding Chris Paul, and averaging 10 points and four rebounds and 30 minutes in a series that resumes Wednesday night in Milwaukee with the Bucks trailing, 2-1. Connaughton has made eight of his 17 3-point attempts.
“He brings toughness and versatility,” says former Celtics basketball boss Danny Ainge. “He can switch and guard multiple positions. He’s a strong, tough kid who can guard bigger people and smaller people. He makes open shots and gets offensive rebounds. He’s just a really active player that gives everything he’s got.”
And like Ainge, Connaughton could have been a major league baseball player.
He played high school baseball at St. John’s Prep with Mike Yastrzemski, pitched for the Harwich Mariners in the Cape League, and was drafted in the fourth round by Dan Duquette’s Baltimore Orioles in 2014, playing one season of minor league ball, throwing 96 miles per hour.
In four seasons of Notre Dame basketball, Connaughton played a school-record 139 games, taking the Irish to the Elite Eight against Kentucky before he was drafted in the second round by the New Jersey Nets in 2015. He’s a 6-foot-5-inch swingman with a 44-inch vertical leap who finished third in the 2020 NBA Slam Dunk contest, throwing one down after jumping over Milwaukee Brewer Christian Yelich.
Closer to home, Connaughton was a three-time Globe All-Scholastic (twice in basketball, once in baseball), donated a half-million bucks to the Prep’s new wellness center (his signature is on the St. John’s basketball court), and still comes back to the school to run camps for his With Us Foundation.
In 2018, he came to the Globe’s offices at 53 State St. to address high school student-athletes, telling the scholars, “I’ve been fortunate to play two professional sports, but I still think some of my favorite memories that I’ve had were in high school and some of the accomplishments we were fortunate to do as a team.”
“He’s a genuine person, from a great family,’' says former St. John’s Prep athletic director and football coach Jim O’Leary. “And he gives back to the community.’’
“I remember the first time he showed up at a summer football camp,” recalls O’Leary. “He was an eighth-grader and he was throwing the football like 80 yards and I said, ‘I have to get to know his name.’ He played JV as a freshman and he was going to be my quarterback, but there were always basketball things happening for him in September and October.’’
Ainge saw the young star when Connaughton played for the AAU Middlesex Magic with Jesse Pagliuca (son of Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca) and Cooper Ainge, Danny’s son.
“Pat stood out with his athleticism,’’ says Danny Ainge.
Bentley coach Jay Lawson was first to offer Connaughton a basketball scholarship, but that was before Connaughton lit up the gym at an AAU tournament in Orlando prior to his senior season at the Prep. Suddenly he had a lot of offers. Notre Dame was a rare school that agreed to let him play baseball while on a basketball scholarship.
Duquette saw Connaughton pitch against Acton-Boxboro in the state tournament in the spring of 2011.
“My son was on the A-B team and I said, ‘Who’s this pitcher for St. John’s?’ ” remembers Duquette. “They told me he was going to college on a basketball scholarship, but I knew I wanted to keep an eye on him.”
Three years later, Duquette’s Orioles drafted Connaughton and worked out a deal that would allow him to return for his senior season of Notre Dame basketball after a summer pitching in the low minors at Aberdeen.
“Notre Dame had Jeff Samardzija, who played football and baseball and had to choose (Samardzija chose baseball and made one All-Star team and more than $120 million in 13 big league seasons),” says Duquette. “We liked Connaughton better at the same stage of their careers. We thought we could convince him to play baseball. I talked to Jerry Krause [18-year general manager of the Bulls] about Pat. He said, ‘Given his height, and who he is, the odds may be against him in the NBA, but don’t sell him short because he can shoot. and Notre Dame players do well in professional basketball.’ ”
Ainge played 211 big league games for the Blue Jays before his career with the Celtics.
“I always liked whatever sport was in season,” says Ainge. “In the end, it was still hard for me, and some of my greatest highlights were playing games at Fenway Park and at Yankee Stadium. Those were highlights of my life. I’ve always said that I probably would not have come to the NBA had I not been drafted by the Celtics or Lakers.”
Duquette took it well when Connaughton opted for the NBA, saying, “Pat’s heart was in basketball.”
“Everyone thought he was a better prospect for baseball,” adds O’Leary. “But his first love was basketball.”
And now the kid from Spy Pond is playing 30 minutes per game in the NBA Finals.