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Blazers' rookie Connaughton dreams of hardwood, hardball

POSTED: Aug 7, 2015 10:51 PM ET

By Ian Thomsen

BY Ian Thomsen

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Pat Connaughton dreams of giving it a go for the Blazers and the Orioles.

During Las Vegas Summer League, Portland Trail Blazers rookie Pat Connaughton reflected on his dueling pro careers in baseball and basketball -- but for now, how his choice is to seek success in the NBA.

The dream is to do both.

He will play basketball for the Portland Trail Blazers for as long as they can go - into June if need be. And then he will pitch for the Baltimore Orioles until their season ends, hopefully with the World Series in October.

"I'm not saying that it's realistic,'' says Pat Connaughton.

He is a 22 year-old with the means to give it a try. He is a pitcher with a 96 mph fastball with the potential to start for the Orioles, with whom he signed a contract in 2014. He is a 6-foot-5 guard with 3-point range who was picked in the second round of the recent NBA Draft by the Blazers.

College Highlights: Pat Connaughton

Watch some highlights and see why Pat Connaughton has been rated as a NBA draft prospect.

He is a natural athlete who loves hard work and dreams of everything.

"I made the joke that if for some reason basketball and baseball fails, I'm going to try to take over for Tom Brady during his four-game suspension,'' says Connaughton, who didn't play organized football until high school and wound up becoming the starting quarterback at St. John's Prep in suburban Boston. "To be honest, I think I could have done something in football if I had put my mind to it.''

But there was not enough time for that. He was preoccupied with basketball and baseball. Even now, as Connaughton launches his NBA career, he refuses to surrender the dream of having it both ways. Why settle for one game when you are capable of playing two?

"I've always tried to not burn a bridge before I've crossed it,'' he says.

He is setting out across this new bridge. What will he find on the other side?

"That's not happening,'' says Neil Olshey, the general manager of the Blazers. "The conversation we had with Pat prior to all of this was you're an NBA player now. Being an NBA player is not a part-time job.''

Connaughton understands.

"The time when Pat would be going to play baseball is a time when you're working on your game and getting better,'' Olshey says. "You see how valuable July is. During the development phase, when you're a second-round pick in the NBA and you have a ways to go to have a translatable skill-set in our league, you need Summer League, you need Grg's camp (run by Bucks assistant Tim Grgurich), you need to spend the offseason in the gym. You can't do that on a part-time basis.''

Connaughton agrees with all of this.

"Now, look,'' continues Olshey, "if he gets into a second contract down the road and that is something he wants to pursue, then that can be a discussion point ...''

This is exactly how Connaughton is viewing his future. Basketball comes first. He has signed a three-year contract with the Blazers -- the first two years guaranteed -- in which to establish himself in the NBA. And if he does, then can there not be some way to also pursue the parallel dream of pitching in the major leagues?

In every team sport -- basketball, baseball, football -- he played the position of leader.

"In high school I was basically the point guard -- but I also played center, if that makes sense,'' Connaughton says. "We didn't have many guys that were taller than me, and we also didn't have a lot of ball-handlers that were used to playing the point. I played everything, and it really helped. The more positions you play, the more you learn.''

His career in football as the quarterback was the first to end, because it had always ranked third behind basketball and baseball. As a starting pitcher he went 11-2 with 160 strikeouts in 90 innings as a high school senior. At that time he might have been a first-round pick in the baseball draft if he had not announced his plan to play basketball in college. The Division 1 basketball offers -- from Boston College, UCLA and Notre Dame among others -- arrived after he played a sensational AAU tournament in Orlando, Fla.

Connaughton settled on Notre Dame, where he starred in baseball and developed steadily in basketball. Once again, he hurt his position in the MLB draft by informing teams that he would not commit to baseball in order to return to Notre Dame for his senior year.

"In my case the dream isn't money,'' he says. "Money comes along the way if you're fortunate enough to be in athletics professionally. You've got to find some other thing that you're chasing, whether that's to be the best, whether it's to succeed or just to get to this level -- at some point you've got to know what you're chasing personally.''

The Orioles picked him in the fourth round of the 2014 MLB draft and agreed to a $428,000 signing bonus. They believed he had more talent for baseball and would eventually gravitate their way after watching him strike out 10 in 14 2/3 innings for Class-A Aberdeen last summer. Then Connaughton returned, as promised, to Notre Dame and joined with Jerian Grant -- the No. 19 pick who will be a rookie for the Knicks this season -- to drive the Fighting Irish to the NCAA Elite 8 and a close loss to No. 1 Kentucky. Connaughton averaged 12.5 points and 7.4 rebounds while shooting 42.3 percent from the 3-point line.

Both Olshey and Danny Ainge, the president of the Boston Celtics who says he "came close'' to drafting Connaughton, believe that basketball is his preferred sport.

"The gold question everybody asks is, `What is your favorite sport?''' Connaughton says."I'm able to joke with people and say, `You know what, I've never gotten that question before.'

"I love them both. If someone put a gun to my head and said, `Pick one,' I might just say, `Shoot me.' No, I wouldn't. But it's just something that I would never pick one.''

And so he is postponing his answer by rephrasing the question. Which of his two loves should he pursue first? The answer is basketball, because it has to be. The requisite for the NBA is athleticism. He could not postpone a professional career in basketball and hope to pick it up again in his mid-to-late 20s. "I couldn't pursue baseball and come back to basketball,'' he says. "It would never work.''

Could he establish himself first in the NBA -- and then return to baseball? That is the question that intrigues him.

"I signed my baseball contract out of high school, and at that time I definitely liked baseball better,'' says Ainge, who would play four years of basketball at Brigham Young while he also played professional baseball in the summers for the Toronto Blue Jays. "I think I would have stayed in baseball had I not been drafted by Celtics or the Lakers.''

Ainge might also have been lured to the NBA if he had been picked by the Blazers, for whom he had grown up rooting in Eugene, Ore. He signed with the Celtics after Red Auerbach picked him in the second round (No. 31 overall) of the 1981 NBA Draft.

"I wasn't a big NBA fan, but it being the Celtics -- and the fact that I was college player of the year -- gave me more of an impetus to contemplate it,'' says Ainge of his final decision to play basketball. "But I loved baseball.''

Ainge spent his last three baseball summers in the majors as a utility infielder and centerfielder. Though he "retired'' with a career .220 batting average, the Blue Jays were converting him into a switch hitter (to exploit his speed from the right side of the plate) and fought hard to keep him. Ainge believes he could have succeeded in baseball, and yet he insists he was not haunted by what might have been.

"Never,'' says Ainge. "Because I loved what I was doing (in basketball). Every player thinks he is going to be really good, right? I have to deal with that with all of my young players now. Like, every one of them thinks they're going to be a starting NBA player and an All-Star, and so I guess I was no different as a baseball player. I never had Spring Training, I never had winter ball or anything like that, and I was playing at a high level.''

Connaughton sees the similarities with Ainge, and with Russell Wilson, the Super Bowl quarterback of the Seahawks who was drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 MLB draft by the Colorado Rockies; and also with Jeff Samardzija, who starred in football (as an All-America wide receiver) and baseball at Notre Dame before settling in as a starting pitcher for the Cubs, A's and White Sox. (Connaughton, Wilson and Samardzija are represented by the baseball agency Frontline.)

"Every situation is unique,'' Connaughton says. "You can't look at it as being afraid to fail. You have to look at what do I need to do to succeed.''

From his perspective as a team executive, Ainge sees good and bad in playing multiple sports. "I don't think that playing baseball helped me become a better basketball player,'' says Ainge, who was also recruited by Division I football programs nationally as a wide receiver. "If anything, playing baseball probably prevented me from becoming a better ball-handler, because whatever the season we were in, that's what I was playing.

"But there are also some theories now that say there are so many knee injuries because kids specialize in one sport. I played 18 years of professional sports and never had a surgery and never had a broken bone. And some people have told me -- trainers and doctors -- they attribute that to me playing multiple sports as a kid.''

Connaughton believes that he will be less vulnerable to overuse injuries because his athletic portfolio has been diversified. He also tends to agree with the point of view of Olshey, who was attracted on draft night by Connaughton's eclectic background.

"There are guys who have an inherent feel for sports,'' Olshey says. "The relationship to the ball and the hand-eye coordination, it makes sense to them. And they have instincts. That's why you see Pat get deflections and steals in the passing lanes. I look at it like somebody that is really good with the computer: They're not going to be afraid to move onto a different operating system. Because it's still going to make sense to them. It's the same with sports. When you are that good, when you are at a professional level of multiple sports disciplines, then at the end of the day you are going to have success at whichever one you choose.''

Connaughton, who graduated with a degree in business administration from Notre Dame, touches all of the bases: He is intelligent, he has the size that the NBA and MLB both crave, he is a ruthless competitor and he is athletic. Ainge, however, believes his athleticism has been exaggerated, based on reports of Connaughton posting a vertical leap of 44 inches at the NBA Draft combine.

"I don't want to ruin the story for the kid,'' Ainge says. "But I told him this: His vertical was 39, because they miscalculated his standing reach. His standing reach in the combine, if you look back, was listed at 8 feet. That's the same size as Quinn Cook, who is only 5-11.''

Ainge figures that Connaughton's standing reach is 8-5. "So they miscalculated by five inches,'' Ainge says. "Now, 39 inches is still high. It's just not Andrew Wiggins-high. Andrew Wiggins is at 43. There is no way that Pat Connaughton is a better athlete than Andrew Wiggins, and all the others that are in the low 40s. He is a good vertical athlete off one leg, but he is not a good two-legged jumper, he's not a great athlete laterally, and he doesn't handle the ball very well because he played forward for Notre Dame. But he is very tough and I love him. We were really, really close to drafting him. I think he is an NBA player, he is a good kid, and I am a big fan.''

"I've been told they messed up by two inches, I've been told they messed up by three, I've been told they messed up by five,'' says Connaughton. "Regardless of whether it's 39, 42 or 44, I just jumped to show that I could jump higher than people thought I could.''

The Blazers are grateful for that athleticism. They will be counting on him as they launch a new era around 25 year old All-Star point guard Damian Lillard. Connaughton shot 43.8 percent from the 3-point line for Portland in five Summer League games in Las Vegas last month.

"I think he can be really good,'' says Olshey. "He has to work on his handle in order to be able to make secondary plays on pick and roll. But he's going to be a very good team defender because he's smart, he knows how to play, he's always in the right place, he's got good hands defensively. Playing at this level is going to be a little eye-opening for him, but why I think he'll be able to translate is that if you look at his ability to rebound at the college level, it means physically he can compete. He has a competitive mindset, he has good instincts as to where the ball is going to be, and his ability to shoot the basketball is something that not only is valued in the league, but it's something we clearly value as a team in Terry (Stotts') system.

"His ability to shoot the ball would have been a redundancy on our roster a year ago, but now it is a really unique skill set for us. So he has value right away.''

And if that value doesn't pan out?

"If basketball doesn't work out for him, he is still going to be able to throw in the mid-90s,'' Olshey says. "He will be a bigger and stronger version of what he is today.''

Connaughton agrees with this, too.

The fundamental problem with his ultimate dream, as Connaughton sees it, is that no one else appears to be dreaming it.

"It's something that scares people,'' he says. "They don't look at the positive reinforcement. They look at at the negatives that can come from it. They're not going to think it's possible until you go out and show them it's possible.''

For sure, absolutely, he is going to be all-in with the Trail Blazers. Basketball is now his priority. He is going to trim his body fat, improve his ball-handling, develop the same kinds of relationships that have helped improve every team for which he has played. He is looking forward to investing in basketball the spare time that used to be applied to classwork and baseball at Notre Dame.

He is going to spend more time than ever training for his new career in basketball. And then, when he can't train anymore, he is going to throw.

"I'm on the Portland Trail Blazers right now, I'm focused, I'm playing basketball,'' he says. "But at the same time, you can't be on the court 24 hours a day. Just like you can't be on the mound 24 hours a day -- you can't be on the mound back-to-back days, really.''

This is how he sees it working. He sees himself becoming an NBA player, increasing his strength, improving his skills. And then, on the side, when all of the NBA work is done, he will throw. The NBA cannot object to this plan any more than if he were playing golf on the side, or pursuing commercials, or taking acting lessons or recording music or opening a restaurant.

Michael Jordan prepared for his greatest season by training for basketball in between takes of the movie Space Jam. Every player in the NBA has outside business interests. Connaughton's outside interest is going to be baseball.

"This will help me in so many different ways that people don't think about,'' he says. "You've got to look at the precision of baseball. If I can hit a spot the size of a teacup that is 60 feet, 6 inches away, well, how many teacups can fit in the rim? Or if you're at the end of a basketball game and you need a long pass: I played quarterback and I'm a pitcher, so I can complete that wherever you want it to be.''

His larger point is that the potential career in baseball can have all kinds of positive influences on his life in basketball -- and vice-versa.

"How many pitchers, if their mechanics are messed up, are able to figure out which part of their body is the one causing the problem?'' he says. "Being a basketball player, you've got to know where your feet are, where your jump shot is going, where your hands are when you're dribbling. You've got to be so aware of your body that when it comes to pitching and timing everything up, it becomes easier.''

The Orioles, wisely, appear to be willing to wait and see the progression of Connaughton's career. So long as he keeps his arm strong, then why give up on a player of such potential? Especially if his ultimate dream is able to come true.

"You've got to look at all of the good P.R. that would come out of it,'' he says. "This is a story that never happens. Think about the marketability, the endorsement side of doing something that people thought never could be done.''

Imagine the payoff if the minor-league pitcher becomes an NBA guard who in turn is able to pitch in the major leagues. Imagine the good will that will benefit both leagues and their teams if he is able to switch back and forth between the two worlds.

In this era of specialization, Connaughton is envisioning a potential merger. Because this is how you're taught to dream when you major in business at Notre Dame. And if the merger falls apart, if he cannot marry the two sports, then what was the harm? He will still to be able to play basketball ... or baseball.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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