PHOENIX — After a lackluster performance in his third Las Vegas Summer League stint, Trail Blazers guard Pat Connaughton wasn’t certain he’d be back in Portland for the 2017-18 NBA regular season. A second-round pick, the third year of his rookie contract was a team option, meaning the Trail Blazers had the right to cut the 6-5 guard out of Notre Dame in order to save some money and clear up a roster spot. When the team pushed back the deadline to make that decision by a few weeks in order to further consider their options, Connaughton had to figure there was a strong possibility that his time with the Trail Blazers might be coming to an end.
But the Trail Blazers would eventually extend Connaughton, assuring that the two-sport athlete who was also drafted by the Baltimore Orioles would have at least one more chance to prove he belonged in the NBA. He did just that Wednesday night in Portland’s record-setting 124-76 opening-night obliteration of the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena, scoring a career-high 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting from the field and 4-of-7 shooting from three.
“For me it was just about making sure that I got into the flow of the game with a few easy baskets,” said Connaughton, who also added two rebounds and two assists. “I don’t think it was something where I expected to be ‘feeling it,’ it’s just a matter of my teammates finding me when I had open shots and I was trying to make sure that I made plays for them too to get them some easy baskets.”
After strong showings in training camp and preseason, Connaughton looked like the most likely candidate to step into the role Allen Crabbe, who was traded to the Brooklyn Nets in a cost-cutting move this offseason, had filled during the last two season. But on Wednesday, Connaughton had much bigger shoes to fill with CJ McCollum, who averaged 23.0 points per game last season, serving a one-game suspension. And when Evan Turner, who started in place of McCollum, picked up two fouls in the first quarter, Connaughton was thrust into action early. He responded by going 5-of-5 from the field and 2-of-2 from three for 12 first-quarter points in what was easily the best quarter of his NBA career up to that point.
“Pat came out and he was prepared for this moment,” said Damian Lillard. “I remember at some point this summer he was making a thousand shots a day and always in the gym. He was just more aggressive and communicating more. You could tell he had a different confidence. He had prepared himself coming back trying to get that contract extension and trying to get on the floor. His performance was huge tonight, not just the way he shot the ball but how he defended, how he impacted the game as a whole.”
While it’s unlikely that Connaughton will impact the next 81 games in the same way he impacted the first, the 24 year-old Massachusetts native showed Wednesday night that the faith the Trail Blazers showed in him by picking up his option was well placed.
“One thing that Dame and CJ have kind of preached, not even necessarily to me specifically but just in general is playing with that chip on your shoulder,” said Connaughton. “They do it at a very high level but they talk about doing it because they went to a small school. For me, I do it because people aren’t sure I’m supposed to be here, they think I’m supposed to be on a mound pitching for the Yankees in the ALCS or whatever. So I think for me it’s about showing that I belong and making sure that I help this team win because, say what you want, they did believe (enough) to draft me, to put the work in with the assistant coaches that I have. I came back this year and I want to make sure that I show them they made the right decision.”