July 13, 2015
University of Notre Dame men's basketball coach Mike Brey didn't climb a ladder, take hold of a pair of scissors, and cut down a net from a basketball hoop at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on June 25 after the 2015 National Basketball Association Draft.
But for Brey, seeing two of his Fighting Irish players -- Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton -- selected in this year's NBA Draft makes just as much impact for Brey's program as winning the Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
"This is an extremely powerful night for the program," Brey said from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn as he reflected on where Grant and Connaughton were drafted. "It's almost like the storybook season continues with the two of these young men being drafted where they were drafted.
"They're the classiest representatives of our university and athletic department, and they're big-time winners. I'm so proud of them. It's was a huge night for our program, to keep riding the momentum of a special season."
Grant was chosen in the first round (19th overall) by the Washington Wizards, and then traded to the New York Knicks, while Connaughton was selected by the Brooklyn Nets in the second round (41st overall) and was also traded. Connaughton was dealt to the Portland Trailblazers.
It was the first time two Fighting Irish players were selected in the same year in the NBA Draft since 1992, when LaPhonso Ellis (Denver Nuggets, first round, fifth overall) and Elmer Bennett (Atlanta Hawks, second round) heard their names called out in Portland, Oregon.
Grant and Connaughton led Notre Dame to the ACC championship in March at the Greensboro Coliseum, pulling off the rare feat of knocking off ACC royalty Duke and North Carolina in the heart of Tobacco Road on the way to the title.
For Brey, the NBA draft set the stage for future championships.
"I don't know if we could have a more powerful recruiting evening than what happened that night," Brey said. "Certainly, all those kids saw us play this year, but also, for them to see these two guys, Jerian and Pat, because every young man is bringing big dreams and watching the draft. To see our two guys up there, and then to be talked about, the kind of people they are, the kind of intelligent basketball IQ players they are, I think that really strikes a chord with prospects and their parents."
For Connaughton, the NBA draft was a once-in-a-lifetime evening. Connaughton didn't go to the Barclays Center. He spent the night with about 75 family members and friends at his parents' beach house in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. He knew the game plan in advance, including the trade to Portland, and he had been through the draft-day nerves before with the 2014 Major League Baseball Draft, so Connaughton made sure that the day wasn't consumed by anxiety.
"It was nice, because I went about it like every other day," Connaughton said. "I tried to enjoy it. I tried not to overthink it, because at the end of the day, I went through this with the baseball draft, the draft is just a position where it's cool to see where you're going, it's cool to see what the next chapter holds, but at the same time, it doesn't guarantee you success. It's more of less one step toward more hard work that you have to put in."
Grant was at the Barclays Center with his prestigious basketball family, and Brey. Grant is the fourth member of his family to be drafted. Harvey, his father, was drafted in 1988 by the Washington Bullets; his uncle, Horace, was drafted in 1987 by the Chicago Bulls, and his brother Jerami was drafted in 2014 by the Philadelphia 76ers.
Staying at Notre Dame through graduation greatly benefitted Grant and Connaughton.
"I think the great thing is, you have a four-year guy and a five-year guy," Brey said of his senior leaders. "They're men. They've grown up. They're very ready to help their teams in their rookie years, because they stayed with us, they got better, they played in the best of leagues.
"These two cut their teeth in the Big East and the ACC. What an experience for both of them, to survive and compete and really achieve in the two greatest leagues, when they were at their best. I think there's no question our style of play is very, very conducive to the NBA, with the floor being spread and basketball IQ guys and guys who play at a high-skill level. There's a big trend in the NBA for that now. We've played that way forever. This year was that on steroids, though."
According to Brey, Grant has a tremendous basketball IQ and a feel for the game. He averaged 16.5 points and 6.7 assists a game.
"Jerian is going to fit in really well with how the Knicks want to play," Brey said. "He's the best guy in the draft off the ball screen. There's no question, Phil Jackson was looking for a play-maker, and someone cerebral, and a basketball IQ. Well, he got his guy." Portland gets a versatile player in Connaughton, who averaged 12.5 points and 7.4 rebounds a game. A prolific 3-point shooter, Connaughton can also torment an opponent with tenacious defense.
"The versatility, the maturity, the attitude in the locker room to win ... Pat brings all of that to Portland," Brey said. "I think, even as a young guy, he's able to motivate people to chase a common goal. He'll be a dirty-work guy, whatever they ask him to do, and he'll embrace it. The shot-making ability ... Portland needs some more shot-makers. His percentage has gone up every year, and he's made some big shots."
Connaughton is eagerly looking forward to pursuing an NBA career and contributing to Portland's effort to build a championship team.
"There are a lot of different ways I can help the team win, and try and get on the floor," Connaughton said. "It will be a great experience, and there's a lot of work to be done. I think my ability to make winning plays will help get me on the floor. Any way you can help the team win will get you on the floor. That's what you're getting paid for, to win ball games." Notre Dame's coaching staff, the competitive ACC schedule, state-of-the-art conditioning facilities, an expert medical staff and a staff ranging from a nutritionist to a sports psychologist all helped Grant and Connaughton put NBA dreams within reach.
"Without Notre Dame, I wouldn't be where I am today, but at the same time, without every coach that I ever had growing up, everyone that's been close to me, I wouldn't be where I am today," Connaughton said.
"I was very fortunate to play in the two best conferences in America. The Big East was the best conference when we were in it, and the ACC was right there when we were in it. Not only did I get to play in great venues, but I played against the best of the best. There isn't anything that Notre Dame doesn't do the right way. Especially with the new facilities coming, it's going to be even better. The people at Notre Dame and the resources helped me accomplish what I did on June 25 (the NBA draft), and helped me accomplish what I did in the MLB (Major League Baseball) draft."
Notre Dame senior center Zach Auguste said that seeing Grant and Connaughton get drafted will have an impact on the current Irish players, as well as any players considering playing at Notre Dame.
"It was amazing to see Jerian and Pat get drafted," Auguste said. "It was a true testament to their hard work and dedication. They deserved it.
"Jerian and Pat getting drafted is great inspiration. We see our leaders, we see our older brothers make it. It gives us focus and determination to make it, just like them. They led the way for us, and we just need to follow the path." Auguste said that Notre Dame makes a comprehensive effort to help its student-athletes achieve success after they stop wearing Fighting Irish colors.
"I think the family atmosphere at Notre Dame really helps an athlete get ready for the next level," Auguste said. "The facilities, the coaches and staff you work with, the competition, everything we have offers us the opportunity to become men. It challenges us academically and physically. It challenges us on the court and off the court. Everything here is top of the line. We're blessed to have a great staff."
When the names Grant and Connaughton were called out in the NBA Draft, it reverberated far beyond the Barclays Center.
"This opened a lot of eyes," Auguste said of two Irish players selected in the 2015 NBA Draft. "Notre Dame basketball is something special, especially with us winning an ACC championship. Now, getting two guys taken in the NBA draft will increase the wants and needs of players to come here. This is a place that offers you a chance to get to the NBA."