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The NBA Has a Kyler Murray of Its Own

What is life like for a bona fide two-sport star? And how do you choose between two passions for the rest of your career? Let Milwaukee Bucks guard Pat Connaughton explain.

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Self-doubt is rare for Pat Connaughton, but when he was an NBA rookie in 2015 it struck him hard. During a timeout in a road game against the Houston Rockets, the Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard ran off the court to take a bathroom break. On the way back to the visiting team’s bench at the Toyota Center, he stopped briefly and looked out at the floor. The speed and intensity of the action sent him into a kind of shock.

“You’re like, ‘Wow, that’s the NBA,’” Connaughton told me recently. “That’s a different breed of human. That’s a different breed of basketball. Everything about that is different.” Once he got back to his seat, the bout of impostor syndrome had passed. “You have to have that belief that you belong.”

At that point, it was unclear whether Connaughton actually did belong. It’s not that the 6-foot-4 wing, who looks like a stretched-out and chiseled Ethan Hawke, didn’t deserve an NBA roster spot. But his potential for stardom seemed greater in his first sport, baseball. The Baltimore Orioles selected the Notre Dame right-hander with a high-90s fastball in the fourth round of the 2014 major league draft, likely much later than he would’ve been taken if he’d committed to giving up hoops.

“He always heard ‘At the end of the day, you’re a baseball guy,’” Fighting Irish basketball coach Mike Brey said. Connaughton didn’t agree. “Patrick Connaughton could never have walked away from basketball without giving it a try,” his father, Len, said. “He just couldn’t have. No way.”

Connaughton’s decision was one of several risky bets he made on himself. The 41st overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft is now averaging 5.9 points in 18.3 minutes per game for the first-place Milwaukee Bucks. Like Kyler Murray, he was talented enough to put aside a promising baseball career for a potentially less-secure future in another sport. And while his abilities aren’t as otherworldly (or lucrative) as the 2018 Heisman Trophy winner’s, Connaughton, too, is a freakish athlete.

At practices, Brey used to enjoy watching Connaughton fire pinpoint inbound passes from the baseline to teammates waiting at half court. “A lot of times,” the coach said, “I’d go, ‘Let’s run that again.’ Because I just wanted to watch him throw.” Mike Crotty Jr., Connaughton’s AAU basketball coach, believes that in another life Connaughton could’ve been an NFL quarterback. In the summer of 2016, Connaughton posted an Instagram video in which he hurls a football a Patrick Mahomes–esque 80 yards.

“He’s a hell of an athlete for an NBA player,” said Connaughton’s friend and former Portland teammate Ed Davis. “And,” Davis begins to allude, “when an NBA player calls another NBA player athletic …” Translation: “He’s special.”

Connaughton is a member of the ultra-exclusive two-sport club, although to him the dual pursuit isn’t about status. It’s a calling. “Some guys go play golf as a getaway,” he said. “Some guys go watch a movie. Some guys go out and party. Everyone has their thing. For me, my whole life it’s been finding another way to get myself better at the two sports that I love.”

Growing up near Boston in Arlington, Massachusetts, Connaughton had two idols: Paul Pierce and Pedro Martínez. It was a struggle figuring out which one he wanted to be more like. Baseball and basketball ran neck and neck. Even these days, Connaughton claims that he doesn’t prefer one sport over the other. “I was never able to answer that question. Maybe I can’t answer that question.”

Len thinks that he and his wife Susan’s only child always favored basketball. When Pat was in preschool in the 1990s, his dad went to Sharper Image and bought him a mini hoop. “It had a little plexiglass backboard,” said Len, who works—now occasionally with his son—in real estate and construction. “He never left the thing. I used to have to go downstairs and get him to go upstairs. Basketball was just his thing.”

By the time Connaughton was a teenager, he’d long since shown himself to be an extraordinarily talented athlete. In hindsight, he remains slightly bitter that he had to convince certain adults of that fact. He recalled that when he was in middle school, his AAU baseball coach told him that he wasn’t good enough to take the mound.

While attending St. John’s Prep, an all-boys Catholic high school about 20 miles northeast of his hometown, Connaughton signed up to play organized football for the first time. At an early practice, he threw a spiral 50 yards—from his knees. “Everyone was kind of looking over their shoulder like, ‘What the eff did this kid just do?’” said Connaughton, who played football his first two years at St. John’s. “I was like, ‘Two years ago I was told I didn’t have a good enough arm.’”

Connaughton quickly stood out at the local athletic powerhouse. After his freshman year at St. John’s, he was already a baseball prospect. Shortly thereafter, then–Boston College coach Mik Aoki gave Connaughton his first Division I scholarship offer. The teen thanked him, but turned it down.

“I want to see what happens with basketball,” Connaughton said that he told Aoki. It’s a refrain that he’s repeated, in different forms over the past decade, countless times.

Aoki didn’t initially buy Connaughton’s reasoning. After all, the coach couldn’t even get BC’s basketball staff to do him a favor and drive 40 minutes up the highway to see the kid play. They told him that the college scouting services viewed him only as a mid-major-level talent.

But, Aoki said, “Pat was insistent that he wanted to play basketball and baseball in school.” The coach continued to make a hard sell, going so far as asking him, “How many 6-foot-5 white guys do you see in the NBA?” That kind of discouragement, Aoki admits now, was a mistake.

“Here I was, telling this high school sophomore and junior, ‘Hey man, you should just play baseball, that’s where your only future is,’” Aoki said. “Now I think he can just look at me and be like, ‘Hey coach, you didn’t know what the hell you were talking about.’ And he was 100 percent right.”

Back then, though, Aoki wasn’t exactly the only skeptic. Connaughton may have been on the way to becoming his high school’s all-time leading scorer, but college basketball’s blue bloods still weren’t interested in him. About a month before his senior year at St. John’s began, that changed. In the summer of 2010, the sure-fire baseball recruit approached his AAU basketball coach with a question.

“He said, ‘I want to know if I can play basketball at the level where I have all these baseball offers. Do you think I can?’” recalled Crotty, who runs the Middlesex Magic, the program his late father started in 1993. “And I said, ‘I believe you can. I know you can.’ We just gotta get those people to come and see you.”

That July, at the AAU Nationals in Orlando, Crotty said that Connaughton averaged 31 points and 20 rebounds per game. At the tournament, a reporter noted that Connaughton had “surprising springs.” The white kid could jump.

One day, at an auxiliary gym a short drive from the Disney World complex where the event is held, Connaughton noticed that Bruce Pearl and Ben Howland, then the respective coaches of Tennessee and UCLA, and Brey were sitting in the bleachers. They were there to see him play. “Holy shit,” he remembered saying to himself, “this is real.”

Soon Connaughton was sifting through basketball scholarship offers from bunches of Division I schools—including BC, Vanderbilt, Miami, UCLA, and Notre Dame—that told him he could also play baseball. (He was intrigued by the possibility of going to college in California, but said that it felt like Howland had reservations about the proposed arrangement.) In the first conversation Brey had with Connaughton’s father, Len asked whether his son would also be able to pitch at Notre Dame. “My answer was ‘Absolutely,’” Brey said. “‘We will work it out, Len. He will play both.’”

Earlier that summer, Notre Dame had hired Aoki away from BC. Over the years, he’d stayed in close touch with Connaughton. Soon after he arrived in South Bend, the baseball coach spoke about Connaughton with Brey, who approved of the two-sport plan.

“This is Coach Brey’s ship to drive, right?” Aoki said. It’s true: According to NCAA rules, a dual recruit’s full boat counts against the higher-revenue sport’s scholarship total. “My baseball coach owes me for life because he only picked up a great pitcher without giving up any financial aid,” Brey said with a laugh.

Connaughton committed to Notre Dame in September 2010 after an official visit to campus that featured a Notre Dame–Michigan football game. Before kickoff, he was brought to the office of coach Brian Kelly, a St. John’s Prep graduate.

“You know, Coach,” Connaughton recalled joking, “I used to be a quarterback in high school, if you need a backup.” Brey then butted in. “Look, I can do two,” the basketball coach said. “I can’t do three.”

By the spring of 2011, on the heels of Connaughton leading St. John’s to its first basketball state championship, pro scouts from his other sport had learned that he wanted to go to college. That year in its preseason rankings, Baseball America named him the 77th best high school senior in the country.

The decision to politely shoo away interested big league franchises cost him a payday that he wasn’t guaranteed again, but Connaughton made his choice with confidence. He wasn’t ready to give up hoops. If he was, he said, “I probably would’ve taken the money out of high school.”

The Padres still burned a 38th-round pick on Connaughton, who graduated high school that May and in June headed to Notre Dame. Early in the two-sport athlete’s time on campus, Brey said that he and Aoki chatted briefly about their shared recruit. They agreed that despite his hectic, physically demanding schedule, he didn’t need any special oversight. “You know, Mik, I think he’s just gonna work it out,” Brey recalled saying. “Let’s not mess with him. Let’s not put any pressure on him from either program.”

Pat Connaughton defends Jamal Murray
Pat Connaughton defends Jamal Murray
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Connaughton wasn’t terribly stressed about time management. When asked, for the umpteenth time, about how he navigated playing college basketball and baseball, he launched into an endearingly rehearsed answer. If he has a mantra, it’s this: “I’ve been playing two sports my whole life. I’ve been preparing for this my whole life. I will find a way to make it work. It’s what I love to do.” In basketball, the Notre Dame freshman started 18 of the Irish’s 34 games, averaged 7.0 points and 4.4 rebounds, and helped his team make the 2012 NCAA tournament. In baseball, he logged 10 starts and 45.1 total innings, finishing 4-4 with a 3.18 ERA.

“I think that there came a point probably in the first year or two of us being here at Notre Dame where I stopped putting any sort of limits on what Pat can do,” Aoki said. “One of the lessons I’ve learned from Pat Connaughton was: Don’t ever put these kids in a box.” Someone like him, Aoki added, “They basically blow up the box.”

By Connaughton’s junior year at Notre Dame, the nation had begun to notice his explosiveness. Against Duke in January 2014, he drove straight down the lane and threw down a one-handed dunk over soon-to-be second overall NBA draft pick Jabari Parker.

That season, Connaughton averaged then-career highs in points (13.8) and rebounds (7.1), but for the first time since 2009, the Irish missed the NCAA tournament. After a loss to Wake Forest in the first round of the ACC tourney, Brey gathered the players who would be returning the next year in his hotel room in Greensboro, North Carolina. At the meeting, the coach noticed that Connaughton had his arm around Irish star Jerian Grant, who’d missed the second half of the season after being ruled academically ineligible. “I was like, ‘You know what, dammit, we may have a shot to bounce back,’” Brey said. “‘Look at this.’”

Connaughton’s period of mourning lasted three hours, at which point he phoned Brey and sheepishly made a request: Could he join the baseball team for a series at Duke? “I go, ‘Get your ass down there,’” Brey said. Even without a helicopter to whisk him away like he was Deion Sanders, he made it to Durham. Two days after scoring 19 points against the Demon Deacons, Connaughton pitched three shutout innings.

And thus began his final college baseball season. He finished his three-year career at Notre Dame with 30 starts, an 11-11 record, a 3.03 ERA, and 105 strikeouts. He didn’t dominate like his hero Pedro Martínez, but his rocket arm attracted MLB teams. Baseball America ranked him the 129th-best prospect available in that year’s draft. Yet even then, he had no plans to give up basketball.

“I was very upfront with everybody,” said Connaughton, who at the time relied on the counsel of Sam Samardzija, brother of former Irish two-sport star Jeff Samardzija. Connaughton’s honesty, he said at a press conference back then, scared off about 10 clubs. But not the Orioles. Baltimore took him with the 121st overall pick and gave him a $428,100 signing bonus.

”He’s got a great arm and we’re hoping he puts his energy into baseball full time,” then-Orioles general manager Dan Duquette told ESPN. Still, the O’s allowed Connaughton to go back to Notre Dame for his senior year. He spent the summer of 2014 with the Class A Aberdeen IronBirds—in 14.2 innings of work, the right-hander recorded 10 strikeouts and had a 2.45 ERA—before returning to South Bend in time to join the basketball team on a tour of Italy. “He’s got a horseshoe up his ass,” Brey said. “The guy always comes out smelling like a rose.”

The coach turned out to be right about his team. In 2014-15, Connaughton captained an Irish squad that, with Grant, finished 32-6 and made it to the Elite Eight, where they fell to Kentucky. As a stretch 4 that year, the senior averaged 12.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game in addition to sinking 42.3 percent of his 3-point attempts.

Connaughton was ready for the NBA. He just wasn’t sure whether the league agreed.

Pat Connaughton next asked himself a question: Which sport do I have a better chance of coming back to? If he tried baseball first, it could take half a decade before he figured out whether he had a long major league career ahead of him. “If it came crashing down after three, four, or five years,” he said, “how the heck am I gonna be able to get back to basketball as a 26-year-old rookie?”

Connaughton had a point: Over time, his athleticism was more likely to wane quicker than his arm strength. So he began to prepare for the NBA draft. Naturally, this was met with resistance. Len recalled that in the spring of 2015 his son ran into a New England area pro baseball scout who told Connaughton that he was making a huge mistake. “Everybody had advice,” Len said. “I give him credit because he stuck to what he really wanted to do.”

To ensure that he wouldn’t be nudged from one sport to the other, Connaughton hired a separate basketball agent. “I just felt that was important because I didn’t want my agent on either side pulling for the one that was gonna make them more money,” said Connaughton, who was initially represented by Lance Young. “At the time, that would’ve been baseball.”

Connaughton knew that there was no guarantee an NBA team would even draft him. “Being a 6-foot-5 white guy,” he said, “you have to be able to pass the eye test.” In May, at the draft combine in Chicago, he aced the exam. In addition to recording the best max vertical leap (44 inches) and standing vertical leap (37.5 inches) at the event, he finished tied for first in the three-quarter-court sprint and the lane agility drill.

Before the draft, more than a dozen teams worked him out. During that process, Young said that Connaughton morphed from a potential undrafted free agent to a possible second-round pick. A former major leaguer who switched to pro basketball himself, Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge reportedly said that despite his view that Connaughton’s level of athleticism was exaggerated, Boston nearly drafted him.

Pat Connaughton dunks at Notre Dame
Pat Connaughton in the 2015 NCAA tournament
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Brooklyn Nets ended up taking Connaughton 41st overall, then traded him and Mason Plumlee to Portland for Steve Blake and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The Blazers signed him to a three-year contract, two of which were guaranteed. Around that time, Portland general manager Neil Olshey pointedly told NBA.com that Connaughton’s baseball career was on hold indefinitely. “The conversation we had with Pat prior to all of this was you’re an NBA player now,” said Olshey, who through a spokesperson declined comment for this article. “Being an NBA player is not a part-time job.”

For the Notre Dame graduate, it was a strange transition. The towering right-hander was built to intimidate on the pitcher’s mound. “The person that was at the plate was at a disadvantage, not me,” said Connaughton, who averaged only 4.2 minutes and then 8.1 minutes per game in his first and second years in the NBA. “And you kind of have to take that same mentality into the NBA.” In the NBA, his size and strength weren’t superpowers. That took some getting used to.

“I’m not LeBron James. I’m not Giannis Antetokounmpo,” Connaughton said. “I’m not the MVP. But there are still things that I bring to the table that have allowed me to be in the league now for four years and hopefully will allow me to be in the league for another 10.”

While working to improve his game, he squeezed in throwing whenever possible. In May 2016, he even stopped by Orioles extended spring training in Florida. Connaughton said that he had to explain to the Blazers, who saw reports of the appearance, that it was merely a visit not an official workout.

“There were times when people were like, ‘You’re in the NBA, you’re doing a disservice to your team if you were still doing baseball workouts,’” Connaughton said. “To a degree, yeah, you’re probably right. If I was out there trying to pitch seven innings a day, yeah I’d be doing a disservice to my basketball team.”

In August 2017, Portland picked up the third-year option on Connaughton’s rookie deal. He responded to the $1.4 million windfall with a breakout season. Backing up CJ McCollum in 2017-18, the shooting guard played in all 82 games and averaged career highs in minutes (18.1) and points (5.4). Alas, last summer the Blazers didn’t even attempt to re-sign him.

“When Portland let him go, I really thought, ‘He’s going to the Orioles,’” Brey said. “He’s gonna call me and tell me he’s gonna go pitch. And I remember talking to him two days later and he’s like, ‘Nah.’”

It took until late July, but Connaughton eventually found a new team. The Bucks signed him to a two-year contract, the first of which is worth about $1.6 million.

During his first organized workout with Milwaukee, while lifting with Antetokounmpo, a strength coach gestured toward Connaughton and said, “You know he plays baseball.” Giannis had no idea. “He’s like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool,’” recalled Connaughton, who said that he and Antetokounmpo have become lifting buddies. “Some guys don’t really get it at first. Some guys are like, ‘I used to play soccer.’”

Connaughton tries not to talk much about baseball in the locker room. For now, that part of his life has receded. While his 3-point shooting percentage has dipped from 35.2 last season to 29.8 this year, he’s worked his way into the rotation of the team with the best record in the league.

“He is 100 percent dedicated to making sure that he makes it in the NBA,” said Young, who’d like to see Connaughton in the slam dunk contest one day. “And now he’s proven that.”

Crotty still remembers the time he ran into two major league scouts at one of Connaughton’s high school basketball games. “They wanted to see what’s all the fuss about,” the AAU coach said. “Why isn’t this kid coming to play baseball?” Crotty said that after witnessing two Connaughton dunks, one of the scouts looked up and said, “OK.” Crotty quickly snapped, “What’s OK mean?” Then, Crotty said, the scout responded, “I can’t be pissed off. He’s really good.”

Even if he’d never reached the NBA, Connaughton believes that he made the right choice. To him, protecting his own personal agency has always been important. It’s why he admires Kyler Murray. The Athletics prospect and NFL-bound quarterback, who’s now dealing with an insidious brand of criticism, made a decision and hasn’t wavered. After all, Connaughton said, the hope for two-sport athletes “is obviously that we’ll have as much success as we can in the paths that we’ve chosen in the moment.”

Still, Connaughton thinks often about the other path he could’ve taken. The Orioles hold his rights until 2020. Now a member of the Nets, his friend Ed Davis still nudges him about playing baseball again. “He’s gotta do that for me, man,” Davis said. “I want to be able to take my kids to the games.”

Connaughton admits that he occasionally imagines what a return to the mound would be like. “Someday, hopefully, after 10, 15 years in the NBA, I’ll be pitching at Fenway Park,” he said, “and I’ll have a whole section rented out to all my old NBA teammates that are going nuts at the game.” The scenario is a fantasy. But if there’s anyone who could make it a reality, it may be him.

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