Inside Pat Connaughton's 2-Sport Dream: Pro Pitcher Also Eyeing NBA Career

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterJune 24, 2015

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A year ago, Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton was a first-round MLB talent who wasn't on the radar of NBA scouts. So when his representatives told MLB teams that he intended to pursue the NBA if he had a chance, what was the response?

"Some thought we were a little crazy," his baseball agent, Sam Samardzija, said.

Connaughton's vow to play out his senior season for the Irish cost him money—he slipped to the fourth round of the 2014 MLB draft—but there really wasn't a fear from MLB teams that basketball beyond Notre Dame was even a possibility. The Baltimore Orioles took a chance in the fourth round and agreed to let Connaughton leave midway through the summer to return to the Irish.

Now, Baltimore will wait to see if he ever returns.

A perfect storm has given Connaughton a realistic shot at the NBA and convinced him to put baseball on hold. He's projected to go 42nd to the Utah Jazz by ESPN.com's Chad Ford and 41st to the Brooklyn Nets by DraftExpress.com.

Mark Hendrickson spent 10 years in the Majors after quitting basketball.
Mark Hendrickson spent 10 years in the Majors after quitting basketball.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

If Connaughton were to get drafted, he would become the first player since Mark Hendrickson in 1997 to get drafted in both the professional basketball and baseball drafts. And if he were to someday play in both the NBA and MLB at the same time, that would be unprecedented in this era. Hendrickson played in each league, but not at the same time. Ron Reed, who played in the NBA from 1965 through 1967 and MLB from 1966 to 1984, is the last player to play in both leagues in the same year.

That was a different era. To attempt to play both these days might mean losing the chance to play either.

"I think that would hurt his value," a Western Conference scout told Bleacher Report. "We've seen guys do baseball and the NFL, like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, but that's just different the way those seasons work. Now everything is year-round. You only have 15 roster spots in the NBA, so you don't want to use one of those roster spots on a guy who is going to be playing another sport. In his particular instance, he's a guy who you want­­­ to focus on basketball. Part of the upside with him is let's see how good he is when he's focused on basketball year-round."

The challenge for Connaughton has been expressing his desire to play hoops to NBA teams. He wasn't even considered an NBA prospect his first few years at Notre Dame because scouts just assumed he was going to pursue baseball professionally. 

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 14:  Pat Connaughton #28 shoots the ball over Corey Hawkins #33 and Brandon Ashley #25 during the 2015 NBA Draft Combine on May 14, 2015 at Quest Multiplex in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Randy Belice/Getty Images

"Now it's a matter of getting it out to everybody," Connaughton said. "No, I wanted to pursue this basketball thing and I wanted to chase this before I go back." 

He doesn't appear to be bluffing. He was still on a throwing program this winter, but he says he hasn't thrown a baseball since February. Instead of reporting to the Orioles once the basketball season finished, he started training for the NBA draft and went to the Portsmouth camp and the combine.

"We've had to kind of change our philosophy with this kid," Lance Young, Connaughton's basketball agent, said. "I think most people thought he could make a team but might have to do it through summer league, going undrafted. ... I think it's a pretty good indication he will get drafted now." 

Connaughton has worked out for 13 different teams. Young said his initial goal with Connaughton was to shoot for the 40-to-55 range in the draft, but teams in the 30s have expressed serious interest.

The only timetable that Connaughton has with the Orioles is that he'll be back once he's certain the NBA is not in the cards. 

"There comes a point in everything where—[if] it doesn't look like I'm going to make the NBA, and I get cut and there are no NBA teams interested—I won't pursue it overseas because I can make a living and play another sport I love in the United States," Connaughton said. 

The easy route would be to just chase the more certain future, and that's on the mound, where he's already been paid. The Orioles gave him a $428,100 signing bonus last June, and the money is guaranteed. 

If Connaughton gets drafted in the second round of the NBA draft, there's no guaranteed contract. He'll have to make the team. But he's coming around at the perfect time to be a niche role player in the league. 

The NBA game is changing, and teams are shooting more threes. This past season, more threes were attempted than any season in the league's history.

Connaughton was one of the best knockdown shooters in college basketball. He made 93 threes as a senior and shot 42.3 percent from distance. 

The Irish also ran a very NBA-friendly offense that specialized in getting looks in the flow of the offense. 

"I don't think he's going to have many issues adapting to the pro game, because his role is so specific," an Eastern Conference scout told B/R. "He's not going to have to be this dynamic ball-handler or do things he's not comfortable doing or hasn't learned previously. I think it helps him. It doesn't hurt him, the style they play there, because it's movement and spacing-friendly and the NBA is trending toward that."

Connaughton also brings some other intangibles to the table that helped his stock in the past year. This last season, he moved from a perimeter spot to power forward, which allowed Notre Dame to get four shooters on the floor and become the second most efficient offense in college basketball.

The Irish were able to pull this off because Connaughton held his own on the defensive end as a 6'5" power forward. He led the team in rebounding and was the team's best player on the defensive end. He made one of the best defensive plays of the season, blocking Butler guard Kellen Dunham's corner three at the buzzer to save Notre Dame in the round of 32.

Mar 21, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Pat Connaughton (24) blocks the shot attempt of Butler Bulldogs guard Kellen Dunham (R) during the final second of regulation in the third round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at the CONSOL E
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

That play opened some eyes to Connaughton's athleticism, and then he put those eyeballs on the floor with his performance at the combine. He had the second-best max vertical (44") in the history of the combine, and he also finished near the top in several speed and agility drills.

Pat Connaughton's NBA Draft Combine Results
Time or heightRank
Lane agility time10.58 seconds6th
Shuttle run3.08 seconds18th
Three-quarter sprint3.20 seconds7th
Standing vertical leap37.5 inches2nd
Max vertical leap44.0 inches1st
Source: NBA.com

"He fits right into that three-and-D mode," the Western Conference scout said. "He's got long arms, good anticipation and just really good hand-eye coordination and toughness and strength, so it can make up for his height some. He should be able to guard well enough, he can certainly shoot well enough, and he can carve out a role for himself in the NBA that way."

Can he play both? 

CLEVELAND, OH - MARCH 28:  Pat Connaughton #24 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish dunks in the second half against the Kentucky Wildcats during the Midwest Regional Final of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball tournament at Quicken Loans Arena on March 28, 2015
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Orioles have made an investment and appear willing to let Connaughton chase his hoops dream, but they don't believe he can do both.

"We'd like to have him," Baltimore manager Buck Showalter told Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun in late March. "We're not going to pressure him, push him. We want, though, when he decides that it is done, the NBA ain't there, then his full attention comes to baseball instead of coming right to us and then wondering. He's got to get this out of his system and we are going to let him do it. Once he gets here he's got to turn the page."

At this point, there's not much risk in waiting. The Orioles still control Connaughton's baseball rights, and that clock only starts ticking again once he returns to baseball. Until then, it's essentially frozen as long as they don't decide to cut bait. 

Connaughton was impressive in his limited time with the organization last season, posting a 2.51 ERA in six appearances for the club's Short-A season squad. Baseball America rated him as the 11th-best prospect in Baltimore's organization earlier this year. 

Since Connaughton is not putting any wear and tear on his arm while playing basketball, getting him now or five years from now might not be all that different. He's a power arm, and those bullets aren't going anywhere. 

"I'm still making sure I watch the way I lift," Connaughton said. "Making sure shoulder flexibility and elbow flexibility is still there." 

If Connaughton were to make an NBA roster, it would be a nice story in itself. This is a guy who didn't even have a Division I offer until the final evaluation period of the summer before his senior year of high school when he starred at the AAU Nationals in Orlando. 

Connaughton likes proving people wrong. After he tore up the combine, he tweeted out, "'Deceptively' athletic, huh??" with a picture of his combine numbers. After upperclassmen at Notre Dame told him as a freshman that "freshmen don't play here," he took satisfaction in starting four games into his freshman season. 

So even though the smart play is to tell NBA teams that if they give him a chance, he's all basketball 100 percent of the time, there's a part of him that wants to eventually play both.

"In a perfect world, absolutely," he said. "You've got to solidify yourself in basketball first. You have to make sure you're good enough for basketball and in a good enough position where a team trusts that if you are pitching in the summer, you're still working out with basketball and still be able to succeed when you get back.

"If that bridge comes along, I'd definitely try to pursue it and make a run at it."

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR


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