Blazers' Connaughton chases two dreams
Pat Connaughton had a simple strategy when he played Scrabble as a kid.
“He always went for the points,” Connaughton’s father, Len, said.
The former Notre Dame two-sport standout’s approach was altered a bit when he stepped onto a basketball court, where in first and second grade he wasn’t allowed to dribble or shoot with his right hand unless his intramural team was trailing with two minutes left. So he developed his left hand, and went for rebounds, too.
“It instilled (in him) that you have to do what it takes to win,” Len Connaughton said.
His Little League baseball coaches simultaneously questioned his age and fell in love with his right arm the first time they saw him throw a fastball.
Alas, two dreams are better than one for Connaughton, who grew up to average 11.4 points per game, second-best on a Notre Dame team that made the Elite Eight last season, and a team-high 7.4 rebounds.
Question has been, though, which dream will Connaughton pursue?
“That’s the million-dollar question — literally,” said Connaughton, who was picked in the fourth round, 38th overall, of the 2014 amateur baseball draft by the Orioles and in the second round, 41st overall, by the Nets in the 2015 NBA draft before being traded to the Trail Blazers.
The answer, for now, is basketball. Connaughton signed a three-year, rookie-scale contract with the Trail Blazers last week, with the first two years guaranteed at roughly $1.5 million according to spotrac.com. He will put his baseball career on hold as he begins his NBA journey.
“You kind of have to expect it if you want to succeed,” Connaughton said. “There’s a work ethic you need to keep.”
Almost half of that million-dollar question seemingly was answered last summer when the Orioles awarded Connaughton a reported $428,100 signing bonus, money the Baltimore Sun reported the team would try to recoup if Connaughton, a highly ranked pitching prospect, chose basketball. They retain his baseball rights for another five years.
“So far, nothing really has happened on that end,” Connaughton said. “There’s always speculation. They haven’t said anything of that nature. I think they’re still pretty confident I have a better future in baseball.”
Connaughton averaged 8.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 25.5 minutes in four Las Vegas summer league games for the Blazers.
In six games last summer — including four starts — for the short-season Class A Aberdeen IronBirds of the New York-Penn League, Connaughton went 0-1 with a 2.51 ERA, 10 strikeouts and a 1.12 WHIP in 14 1/3 innings. He then returned to Notre Dame to prepare for his senior basketball season.
Playing both sports professionally offers some logistical challenges, which seems right up Connaughton’s alley.
“In a perfect world, that’s what I’m shooting for,” said Connaughton, a 6-foot-5, 215-pounder from Massachusetts who attended the same high school, St. John’s Prep, as Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly. “Obviously you have to be realistic. You have to figure out how you can succeed. It’s not something I’m expecting.”
Connaughton isn’t the first two-sport athlete from Notre Dame to face such a decision. White Sox pitcher Jeff Samardzija — whose older brother, Sam, is Connaughton’s agent — was an All-America wide receiver but elected not to enter the NFL draft out of college, instead choosing baseball.
“It’s easy to do the thing everybody wants you to do,” said Jeff Samardzija, who the Cubs picked in the fifth round of the 2006 draft. “Ultimately, for professional sports, you have to do what you love.”
Connaughton, who the Padres had picked in the 38th round of the 2011 baseball draft before he opted to attend Notre Dame, isn’t sure yet which sport that might be long term — if there is just one.
“I grew up in a hockey town,” said Connaughton, who was 11-11 with a 3.03 ERA and 105 strikeouts in 154 2/3 innings in three seasons at Notre Dame. “I rooted for all types of Boston sports. The way I look at it, who am I to shut down one avenue?”
Samardzija doesn’t disagree.
“He’s in a good situation,” Samardzija said. “If it doesn’t work out … he can see how hard he can throw off the mound.”
In the meantime, he will go for the points and rebounds.