NBA Guard Pat Connaughton's Future Resides in Explosive Mid-90s Fastball

Malika AndrewsFeatured Columnist IJune 9, 2017

Connaughton pitching for Notre Dame as a junior in 2014
Connaughton pitching for Notre Dame as a junior in 2014Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Notre Dame pitching coach Chuck Ristano can’t remember exactly which parts of the story are true and which parts have been exaggerated by the telling and retelling of the tale about his former player, Pat Connaughton.

The fable goes something like this: When the Fighting Irish basketball team played in the Big East tournament, Connaughton would arrive at Madison Square Garden with a glove tucked under his arm and play catch with a manager.

He was working on his fastball or his curveball, trying to perfect his arm before baseball season started and he would be off the basketball court pitching for the Irish. As a two-sport athlete, there wasn’t much time to get in shape between the two seasons, so he would spend time in between basketball games honing his craft.

“That (story is) factual,” Connaughton told Bleacher Report, laughing. “I did have a glove. I did have a guy on the team have a glove or a catcher’s mitt if needed because some of them were scared of my fastball.”

CORAL GABLES, FL - April 21: Pat Connaughton #24 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish throws the ball against the Miami Hurricanes on April 21, 2014 at Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field in Coral Gables, Florida. Miami defeated Notre Dame 6-3. (Photo by
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Growing up in Arlington, Massachusetts, baseball always came easily to Connaughton, but basketball has always been more of a challenge. He says he didn’t just want to be “another white guy who can shoot like the stereotype says,” so he spent extra time in the gym working on his game and lifting to bulk up. In high school, he earned All-State honors in baseball and was a four-year letter-winner in basketball while playing for St. John’s prep.

That hard work led Connaughton to accomplish something rarehe went to the Orioles in the fourth round of the 2014 MLB draft, collecting a $428,000 signing bonus and playing for the Aberdeen IronBirds for the summer. He elected to return to school to play his senior year of basketball before the Portland Trail Blazers acquired him in a draft-day trade in 2015.

“You know, if you’d have told me he’s going to be a second-round pick in the NBA when he was a freshman, I don’t know that I would’ve believed you,” Ristano said. “But having had the chance to work with Pat, he proved to me early that he just was not going to be denied. If he wanted to golf in the PGA Tour, I think that he could. If he wanted to be a wide receiver, I think he could. He’s a kid that goes at everything.”

Now, the 6’5” guard is heading into his third year of a three-year contract with the Blazers. The final year of his contract is not guaranteed, making his future with the Blazers uncertain.

Connaughton rising for a jumper as a Blazer in 2017
Connaughton rising for a jumper as a Blazer in 2017Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

“I think the Orioles know I have real potential in baseball,” Connaughton said. “I think they know I know that. But I also think they know that I’m in a fortunate position where I have a chance to play two professional sports. And the way I look at it is I think I am doing myself a disservice if I give up one for the other without really giving it a few years.”

There hasn’t been that much playing time available on a roster that has star guards like Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. In the 2016-17 season, he averaged 2.5 points and appeared in 39 games for the Blazers. Those numbers are better than last year when he appeared in just 34 games and averaged 1.1 points per game. It’s an improvement, but not exactly where he wants to be.

One thing is certain: If the Blazers let him go and another team does not pick him up, he won’t go overseas and try to force his way into making a comeback. He says his intention, when his basketball career ends, is to play baseball.

And if his confidence is any indication, that switch will be very successful.

"I think I could have some real success at that level," Connaughton told Eduardo Encina of the Baltimore Sun in January. "I think, to be quite honest, I could be that [caliber] of an All-Star."

"I do believe I could get to the point where I could step in and be one of the top two guys in that rotation."

There is evidence to back up that claim, as even Connaughton's brief six-week stay with Aberdeen brought exciting results.

According to Tom Noie of the South Bend Tribune, his fastball "was popping in the mid-90s and his breaking stuff was falling off the edge of the table." Most importantly, he was pitching "with a higher velocity more consistently" and his arm had more strength and endurance.

Connaughton pitching for the Orioles' Aberdeen IronBirds (short-season A)  in 2014
Connaughton pitching for the Orioles' Aberdeen IronBirds (short-season A) in 2014Courtesy of the Aberdeen IronBirds

Connaughton’s goal has always been to play both baseball and basketball at the highest level. When he was meeting with teams as a junior at Notre Dame, he told general managers he wanted to return to college for his senior year of basketball. He says that if he had told teams that he was ready to play professional baseball, it is likely he would’ve gotten picked up in the first round.

“I think I made the right decision. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be a pro at two sports, it was kind of my dream. I did kind of accomplish that. Now as I got older, it wasn’t just that I want to be a pro in two sports, I want to be successful at the professional level in two sports. Obviously, I’m still working to attain that. Especially in basketball.”

Connaughton’s options at this point include returning to the Blazers, not having his option picked up and signing with another NBA team, attracting no NBA interest and going to the newly named G-League (formerly D-League). That’s a lot of choices for a guy who has a guaranteed home with a Major League Baseball team.

“I think in the coming years I’ll be able to see if it pays off. Now, even if it doesn’t work out for some reason, even if my contract is up next season, say I don’t play much next season whether it’s here (in Portland) or somewhere else and it becomes a reality that I’d have to play in the G-League to try to get back in it. If that happens and I go back to baseball and everyone says, ‘You could’ve been in the majors by now because you’ve wasted three years,’ I wouldn’t feel that way at all. How many guys can say they’ve played in two professional leagues?”

He still throws when he can but is careful not to hurt himself while basketball is his primary meal ticket. He is keeping his options open with baseball as he texts with Orioles General Manager Dan Duquette every few months and stays in touch with former teammates.

During exit interviews after the Trail Blazers’ playoff elimination by the Golden State Warriors, GM Neil Olshey was not definitive about Connaughton’s future with the team.

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 12: Pat Connaughton #5 of the Portland Trail Blazers reacts during the game against the New Orleans Pelicans on April 12, 2017 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downl
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

“We were just talking to Pat about his future and guys getting ready for summer league and I said, ‘One of the things…you’re very lucky. You’ve been in the league for two years. You haven’t played a lot, but you know what it takes to win because you’ve been around a team that has won,”Olshey told reporters. And maybe not at the level this year we wanted to win at, but you weren’t playing for the draft in January. And that will reap benefits down the road.’”

For now, Connaughton is working on his basketball craft. He is spending most of the offseason in Portland training with assistant coaches and getting in shooting sessions on his own.

Connaughton faces an important crossroads in deciding whether this is the summer he makes the switch to baseballan option few professional athletes have.

If he does, the Orioles will welcome him with open arms, and the first big step on his path to MLB stardom will be complete.

Malika Andrews covers baseball and basketball for Bleacher Report, and sports for the New York Times. Her work has previously appeared at the Denver Post, Yahoo Sports and the Associated Press. Follow Malika on Twitter @malika_andrews.