Playoffs 2019 East First Round: Bucks (1) vs. Pistons (8)

Q&A: Pat Connaughton enjoying the NBA lifestyle while keeping MLB option open

Milwaukee's reserve guard remains intrigued by possibility of pitching in the major leagues

The game had been decided for a while when Pat Connaughton, a Milwaukee reserve guard, got Detroit’s Langston Galloway on his back for a post-up opportunity deep into the fourth quarter. Drawing instantly on his days back at St. John’s Prep in Danover, Mass., where Connaughton was both his high school team’s point guard and its most reliable big man, the Bucks player sensed where Galloway was defensively and deftly put up an 8-foot hook shot that made it 117-97, Milwaukee comfortably on its way to a 2-0 advantage in its first-round playoff series against the Pistons.

“He covers a lot of ground,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He gets some great contests even when he doesn’t block shots. He bothers shooters, and he’s really great at chasing and staying with guys. He mixes in making some threes and he’s going to the basket and finishing. He and I were laughing that he’s turned into our best power forward with a jump hook.”

Why not? Connaughton also is the Bucks’ best hard-throwing righthanded major league baseball prospect. That’s real, made official when the Baltimore Orioles made the native of Arlington, Mass., the 121st pick in the 2014 MLB draft and signed him for a $428,000 bonus.

Connaughton had been fascinated with the possibility of excelling in two sports, dating back to his days rooting for both Paul Pierce and Pedro Martinez as a fan of the Celtics and Red Sox. He thrived in both basketball and baseball in high school, then sold the coaches at Notre Dame on pursuing the dream in college.

Connaughton spent the summer of 2014 in Class A, striking out 10 in 14.2 innings for the Aberdeen (Md.). Then he returned to Notre Dame to help the Irish go 32-6 and reach the “Elite Eight” of the NCAA tournament. He averaged 12.5 points and 7.4 rebounds and made 93 of 220 (42.3 percent) from 3-point range. That spring, in his workouts for NBA teams, Connaughton showed enough to snag the No. 41 spot in the 2015 draft, a pick traded from Brooklyn to Portland that night.

In three seasons with the Trail Blazers, Connaughton and his startlingly springy game averaged 3.7 points and 1.6 rebounds in 12.6 minutes. But by 2017-18, he had earned a regular rotation spot (5.4 ppg, 18.1 mpg, 82 appearances). All the while, he had friends, fans, critics and advisors whispering in his ears, one on each sport like the kid in “Animal House,” only pushing the merits of baseball vs. basketball and vice versa. Connaughton fended them off to sign a two-year deal with Milwaukee last summer, and he worked through some mid-season inactivity to become a reliable call for Budenholzer now for duty at both ends.

Between the best postseason game of his NBA career and the Bucks’ flight to Detroit for Game 3 Saturday night, Connaughton talked with’s Steve Aschburner about the sport in his present and the other one possibly still in his future:

Steve Aschburner: You and your team’s other reserves have been around for this special season, contributing in ways big and small as bench players all hope to do. But to have such an impact – 18 points, nine rebounds, four blocks in 31 minutes – in a playoff victory has to have been especially gratifying, doesn’t it?

Pat Connaughton: It’s been great. But one of the things I’ve tried to be better at as this year has gone on is understanding it’s one game. As NBA players, so much of the game is mental, as far as confidence and playing against the best players in the world. You have to feel you belong but you also have to keep that chip on your shoulder. You need to be ready to try to do the same thing the next game and the game after that, to be as consistent as you can be.

SA: Wait, that sounds almost like a coach. Coaches don’t trust or can’t fully enjoy the successes, even as they feel the full force of their losses. Don’t you ever get to feel satisfied?

PC: You have to be smart about how you do it. You pick your spots. After [Game 2], I was happy. I was satisfied with myself that night. You get a mix of texts from past friends or family or former coaches, and that’s awesome, but you also hear from some people who thought you’d never be able to do it. Now they think that’s the best you could ever play and there will never be another game like it in your life! For me, that fuels the fire a little bit. Yeah, I played well and I’m happy I was able to help my team win. But it’s also kind of a backhanded compliment, when people look at it like I shouldn’t be here. I should be off pitching somewhere right now and I was just “lucky” to do it.

For me, it was my dream as a kid to play two sports at the highest level I possibly could.”

Pat Connaughton on playing basketball and baseball

SA: I’ve noticed people are more comfortable second-guessing you because you’ve had two major sports paths. If it was either the NBA or selling insurance, for example, fewer folks would be open about doubting you. But because you’ve had the option to purse basketball or baseball, people feel free to offer up their opinions.

PC never going to have success at either sport because I wasn’t giving my best effort at one of them. What I learned from that is, people will want to be right about what they told you more than they’ll want to see you succeed at what you’re trying to do.

SA: I’m not even going to ask you which sport you prefer, because I’ve seen the inconclusive answers you give to that question. So I’ll ask this instead: How do you get through four years of academics while juggling two varsity sports?

PC: And Notre Dame academically isn’t a walk in the park. But if it’s really something you love, you’ll figure out a way to get it done. I think there are a lot of people who say they want to be professional athletes, say they want to make millions of dollars, but don’t necessarily like doing the hard work that goes into it. And any time there’s adversity, they’ll say, ‘Well, I tried.’ And go on to the next thing.

For me, it was my dream as a kid to play two sports at the highest level I possibly could. Doing that at Notre Dame just meant I had to sacrifice in ways a normal college student wouldn’t have had to sacrifice. I went back to summer school every year, to make sure I got ahead of my classes. I took the hard classes in summer and was in position, if needed, to take a lighter load in the fall or spring semester. Or be in position to potentially graduate early and really prepare myself for the NBA draft combine. There were times during summer school where, on a Friday or Saturday night, I had to be in the baseball training center working on my arm strength or in the gym putting up shots. Quite frankly, it didn’t feel like a “have to.” It was something I wanted to do.

SA: Kyler Murray, the Oklahoma quarterback and Oakland Athletics prospect, has critics, as have other two-sport athletes. In your case, do you think the situation is complicated by being a white guy who’s not seven feet tall and therefore not fitting into preconceived notions about NBA players?

PC: Definitely. I’ve tried to say it a little more politically correct. I use the phrase ‘I didn’t pass the eye test.’ The eye test in the NBA is different from the eye test in baseball. If you take my build, make-up, everything into consideration, in baseball that’s sought after. You don’t find a 6-foot-5 pitcher with the athleticism and coordination I have all that often. It’s why I was able to pick up on things very quickly when I went through a summer of minor league baseball. But in basketball, in most people’s eyes, I’m in the lower half or don’t even make the cut for what they perceive to be an NBA player.

SA: You have explained your sequencing of sports, with the NBA first and MLB perhaps later, by noting that athleticism could fade while your arm stays strong. But did you factor in the level of player – reserve vs. star – you might become in each sport?

PC: I definitely have thought of that. I looked at my life from the standpoint of what I dreamed of doing when I was a kid. Obviously I’ve wanted to be as successful at both sports as possible. You have to shoot for being an All-Star to have a chance to even make it in either, right? But I did think, “If I really went into baseball right now, if I dropped basketball when I was coming out of high school, I fully believe I’d have had the chance to be an All-Star, to be one of the top two pitchers on a championship team.” But something drew me to basketball, something drew me to having success in two sports. I’m not saying there may not be a day when I play baseball – maybe in 10 years – and I might or might not reach that [All-Star] level. But it meant more to me to have success in both sports than to give up basketball before really having the opportunity.

SA: How different are the sports, as you see them?

PC: In baseball there’s so much camaraderie and team things just from hanging around the ballpark together. But in the end, you’re the one at the plate or you’re the only one on the mound at that time. In basketball, everyone’s involved in the play all the time. That’s something I enjoy. Being a pitcher, and walking the bases loaded with no out and having to get out of the jam, it takes a mental toughness that I almost enjoy bringing on myself, to figure out how to get the outs. At the same time, to make a mistake in a basketball game and to immediately have the opportunity to run downcourt and get a block or a steal to make up for it and help your team, that’s also something I enjoy. If a guy hits a home run off me, I have to wait eight batters to see him again.

SA: So far in the 2019 playoffs – small sample size – you have an offensive rating of 146 and a defensive rating of 89. Those are straight-to-Springfield numbers over a career. What do you think about analytics, which got their early traction in baseball?

PC: I think analytics are good for figuring out what guys do best. But I think they’re more for coaches. Sometimes I don’t think analytics tell the whole story. I try to not get too caught up in it. For me, it means giving the best effort that I can. And making fewer mistakes than the guy across from me.

SA: Tell us something about Giannis Antetokounmpo that we don’t know.

PC has to work that hard…” Combined it with his talent, his size, his quickness, how much higher could his ceiling be? It started with us doing extra shooting drills and morphed into lifting extra weight. I think it’s become part of who he is as a player. And he understands how having that work ethic affects the culture of your team.

SA: OK, some background and personality stuff. What was the first car you owned?

PC Jeep Wrangler when I was going into my senior year of college. Got it after playing a summer in minor league baseball, with the signing bonus I got. Still have it.

SA: Tell me a song you need to hear often, that means something to you?

PC “Homecoming” by Kanye West. It makes sure I never forget where I came from. I was once a random, little chubby kid from Arlington, Mass., who had no ties to professional sports. But I had a dream of it. Everyone who coached me, played with me, played against me had a hand in getting me to where I am today.

SA: What’s your favorite place on Earth?

PC Hampton Beach, N.H. Because it was a place I finally grew up, going in the summers. And it’s a place I’ll always be able to go back to in the offseason. I have friends and family who have been there since the beginning. I’ll be able to run around on the beach with my little cousins and act like the little kid I am at heart.

SA: Your basketball coach at Notre Dame, Mike Brey, once said rather indelicately about you, “He has a horseshoe up his ass.” What do you think he meant by that?

PC [laughing]: I didn’t see that, but it sounds like something that would be right up his alley. I think what he means by it is, I’m a fortunate kid, which I definitely am. But I also think he would say I’ve helped create some of that luck that a horseshoe may bring. Whether by hard work or doing the right thing or having the right people around me. “It definitely doesn’t suck to be Pat Connaughton” would be another one of his quotes.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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