On Jan. 4, 2014, Notre Dame played host to Duke as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference for the first time. The Joyce Center was buzzing, and the Irish improbably surged to a second-half lead against the No. 7 Blue Devils.
With just over four minutes left, Notre Dame guard Pat Connaughton caught a pass near the top of the key as his defender slipped. Connaughton then took two hard dribbles to his right and threw down a violent one-handed dunk over Blue Devils star Jabari Parker, the eventual No. 2 pick of the NBA Draft.
The immediate reaction was more of surprise than admiration.
“This is what I love about college basketball, folks,” color commentator Greg Anthony told the CBS audience. “You don’t have to have the most talent.”
A few moments later, a referee walked over to Connaughton during a break.
“I had no idea you could do that,” the official told him.
Connaughton politely told the referee that he must not have seen him play very often.
As a senior this season, the 6-foot-5 Arlington native averaged 12.5 points and 7.4 rebounds and helped the Irish to a 32-6 record. He introduced himself to much of America in his team’s stirring regional final loss to undefeated Kentucky, as he consistently soared above the Wildcats’ big men, whom very few players soared above this year.
So when Connaughton traveled to Chicago for the NBA combine in May, he hoped there would finally be more awareness about his athleticism. His 44-inch vertical leap was the second highest in the history of the combine and his 37½-inch standing vertical was the highest at this year’s event. His times in the lane agility drill (10.74 seconds) and ¾-court sprint (3.4 seconds) tied for first, too.
Once again, though, the performance left onlookers rubbing their eyes. Was that the kid from Notre Dame? The scrappy kid? The kid that shoots the 3-pointers?
Well, yes, yes, and yes. But now, as he chases his NBA dream, he hopes everyone understands he is capable of more.
“A lot of people see that I’m a good rebounder,” Connaughton said. “And then they see the long hair and everything and they think I’m getting these rebounds because of toughness, and because I have a nose for the ball, not because I’m athletic and can actually jump. But if I didn’t have this athleticism, I wouldn’t be having the success I do at both ends of the floor.”
Connaughton is widely viewed as a basketball player with a more promising future in baseball. He is a hard-throwing righthander, and in 2014 he was drafted in the fourth round by the Orioles. He received a $428,000 signing bonus and played short-season ball with the Class A Aberdeen Ironbirds last summer.
But Connaughton returned to Notre Dame for his senior year because he wanted to graduate, he wanted to get rid of the sour taste of the Fighting Irish’s 15-17 season, and he wanted to pursue two pro sports.
Now, after a sparkling senior year, excellent showings at predraft camps, and positive evaluations at individual workouts, Connaughton has emerged as a likely second-round NBA draft pick.
“At the start of this year,” one NBA scouting director said, “that probably wasn’t the case.”
The summer before his sophomore year at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Connaughton began working for his father Len’s construction company. He was assigned to a six-unit condominium project in Brookline, where he mostly hauled lumber, loaded dumpsters, and swept floors.
After three weeks, Len could see that his son was unhappy. He believed he had potential as an athlete, and cleaning up a construction site while others were practicing could leave him behind.
So Len made an offer: Pat could stop working and start training at Athletic Evolution, a gym in Woburn. The only condition was that he had to view it as a job, a route to a scholarship, a route to something bigger. If Len ever heard that Pat wasn’t taking the opportunity seriously, he would be back hanging drywall.
“The reality was, no matter how much he worked for me, it wouldn’t be enough money to pay for school,” Len Connaughton said. “The only way he was going to be able to pay for college was to get a scholarship.”
Athletic Evolution is tucked away in a nondescript, brick-walled office park. It is not flashy, but it does not need to be. The facility is run by Erik Kaloyanides, a former offensive lineman for the Syracuse football team. There are basketball courts and a small turf field that is actually an old end zone from Syracuse’s Carrier Dome. But for the most part, the interior has the feel of a blue-collar cross-fit gym.
Kaloyanides was initially focused on developing Connaughton’s arm strength, because he had shown the most promise as a baseball player.
“We knew he threw gas and we knew he’d play a high level of college baseball,” said Kaloyanides, who continues to train Connaughton today. “But over time, as he’s putting in the work, he’d keep telling me, ‘I’m playing both. I’m playing both sports in college.’ ”
During the summer before his senior year of high school, Connaughton thrived at AAU basketball nationals in Orlando. He accepted a scholarship offer from Notre Dame, where he would play both sports.
“The personality he had was something I wanted in my locker room,” Notre Dame basketball coach Mike Brey said. “I thought it would be contagious. And this year his leadership was essential, because he was our main voice. I don’t know if I ever yelled at him in four years, but I would challenge him, maybe point out, ‘I’m not sure if you can guard this guy.’ And that’s all he needed to hear.”
Connaughton improved his field goal percentages and rebounding totals in each of his four seasons with the Irish. As a senior, he said, he was focused on winning, particularly after Notre Dame had been so dismal the year before.
The Irish went on to win an ACC tournament title, receive a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and reach the Round of 8 for the first time since 1979. Although projected first-round draft pick Jerian Grant received many of the accolades, Connaughton was the heartbeat.
As he emerged as a potential NBA prospect, however, some encouraged him to stick with baseball, where his ceiling is thought to be considerably higher. Connaughton, meanwhile, saw no reason to pigeonhole himself.
The Orioles still hold Connaughton’s rights, but he said the franchise gave him its blessing to pursue a basketball career first. If he ends up with offers to play overseas or in the D-League, he said, he will report to the Orioles this summer.
Until that time, though, he will not pass up the chance to make an NBA roster. About two hours after Notre Dame’s season-ending loss to Kentucky, Kaloyanides was woken by the buzz of a text message from Connaughton.
“I can’t wait to shock the world again,” he wrote.
NBA interest in Connaughton surged after the NCAA Tournament and his combine performance. He has worked out for more than a dozen teams — including a June 10 visit with the Celtics — and it has become difficult to fit some into his schedule.
His agent, Lance Young, said that when teams try to schedule a workout when a player is unavailable, they typically move on if they are not truly interested. In Connaughton’s case, they have consistently called back.
Len Connaughton said his brother recently asked him to name the NBA teams he would like to see his son play for. He paused.
“I just told him how surreal it was that he was even asking me that question,” Len Connaughton said. “It’s unbelievable that we’re even in this position to think about that. But it’s something Patrick has wanted, and he’s sure gone after it.”