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Orioles draftee Connaughton's strong NBA opener, promise for more minutes, cloud baseball future

The Orioles still believe that 2014 fourth-round draft pick Pat Connaughton has more promise throwing fastballs than shooting 3-pointers, but Connaughton’s performance in the Portland Trail Blazers’ regular-season opener Wednesday night proved that his NBA career still has life.

Connaughton, 24, opened his third NBA season by scoring a career-high 24 points in Portland’s 124-76 blowout victory over the Phoenix Suns, making nine of 14 shots, including four of seven from 3-point range while playing 32 minutes.

It was unquestionably the best game of Connaughton’s NBA career. And even though it came with starting shooting guard CJ McCollum unavailable serving a one-game suspension, it provided a glimpse of the increased playing time Connaughton could garner this season, which would further place his professional baseball career on the back burner.

The Orioles believed that Connaughton could be fully invested in baseball by the beginning of the 2018 season, because only the first two years of the three-year NBA deal he signed with the Trail Blazers before the 2015-16 season were guaranteed. But the Trail Blazers picked up the third year of Connaughton’s deal in August, postponing any full-time commitment to baseball for at least another year.

But the promise of more consistent playing time – and the possibility of an extended career that might accompany that – could make Connaughton’s baseball future even murkier.

On Wednesday, he came off the bench, but led the entire Portland team in minutes played with 32:04. He averaged just 8.1 minutes per game last season and 4.2 in his rookie season two years ago. Even with McCollum’s return, it would seem that Connaughton’s minutes will rise significantly this season.

Connaughton has always said he still hopes to play baseball, but decided to test his basketball career first because he believed that’s where his stock was most valuable.

And after his third-year salary of $1.471 million was guaranteed in August, Connaughton will have made more than $2.87 million by the end of this NBA season.

The Orioles gave Connaughton a $428,000 signing bonus when they drafted him in 2014 and allowed him to return to Notre Dame for his senior basketball season, which ended with the Fighting Irish advancing to the Elite Eight and elevating his draft stock. He was selected by the Brooklyn Nets in the second round with the 41st overall pick, and his draft rights were subsequently traded to Portland.

While Connaughton has said he keeps his arm strong with occasional throwing sessions, his professional baseball experience is limited to 14 1/3 innings at Short-A Aberdeen in 2014. He posted a 2.51 ERA in six games with the IronBirds. Some in the organization believe that he could move through the farm system quickly, but he first has to return to the Orioles for that to happen.

And that’s not looking like its happening anytime soon.

eencina@baltsun.com

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