Orioles draft pick Pat Connaughton improving NBA stock, but future could change this summer

Pat Connaughton isn't sure about his future with Orioles: "There could be a crossroads or there could not be."

Pat Connaughton still spends most game nights in the NBA biding his time, sitting at the end of the Portland Trail Blazers' bench and waiting for his name to be called. As a second-year player, his minutes are up, he's playing better and he's learned a lot. He's still optimistic about his pro basketball career, despite the fact that he's spending most of it as a spectator.

But the Orioles selected Connaughton in the fourth round of baseball's first-year player draft 2 1/2 years ago ago, and they're still hoping the $428,000 signing bonus they gave him then will pay off. He hasn't pitched off a mound in nearly 30 months, at the end of his 14 2/3-inning stint at short-season Single-A Aberdeen in 2014, before Connaughton returned to finish his basketball career at Notre Dame. His senior season ended with an Elite Eight run and his being selected in the second round of the NBA draft.

On Monday, Connaughton, 24, sat in the visiting locker room of the Verizon Center, knowing the tightrope he must walk between an NBA career and a potential return to baseball.

He entered Monday's game against the Washington Wizards averaging just six minutes a game, up slightly from 4.2 during his rookie season. In the Wizards' 120-101 win, Connaughton was the last Portland player in uniform to see action, sitting on the bench until 4:39 remained in a 22-point game. Connaughton scored the game's final points, his only two of the day, on an open transition layup at the buzzer.

Connaughton has plenty of time to think on the bench, and on flights from city to city, on bus rides from hotels to arenas. Ultimately, he hopes the question of whether he remains in basketball or veers back to baseball resolves itself. But more than likely, he's going to have to choose one over the other.

When the Trail Blazers drafted the 6-foot-5 Connaughton in 2015, he signed a three-year contract, but just two are guaranteed. This summer, Portland must decide whether to pick up Connaughton's third year. If the team doesn't, Connaughton will have to either look to join another NBA team or opt for bumpy bus rides through Single-A ball.

Until then, he's biding his time.

"There could be a crossroads or there could not be," Connaughton said. "It is something where I want to get an opportunity in this sport and see what happens, but at the same time, if it doesn't look like that's going to happen and it's a case where I'm not going to play and I'm just going to drift away, I'm not going to say I'm not going to take a chance on the other sport.

"I like to think that as much as I have a passion for both sports, I also am a decently smart guy on the business side. I graduated from Notre Dame. It's just one of those things where you have to try to balance that line as well as you can and make sure you give yourself the opportunity on both bridges before you burn one down."

The patience of some in the Orioles organization seems to be wearing thin, and this summer, with Connaughton's NBA career potentially in limbo, the Orioles hope he turns to baseball sooner than later. Last summer, the Orioles drafted a group of talented young college arms with their first three picks in right-handers Cody Sedlock and Matthias Dietz and left-hander Keegan Akin.

Last year, Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said the team would "leave a candle at the window" for Connaughton. Duquette said Monday that candle is still flickering.

"As soon as Pat realizes he can advance from playing an auxiliary role to a leading role, he should turn his energy to pro baseball," Duquette said in a text message Monday. "So far, he hasn't made that determination."

This season, Connaughton is averaging 1.5 points a game, and he's never scored more than seven. He has played in just 18 of Portland's 42 games, but he's shooting much better from the field, up to 55.6 percent from 26.5 percent last season. He said he learned a lot from playing in the NBA summer league in Las Vegas, where he averaged 14.4 points per game on 34.8 percent shooting.

"Obviously, I'm not where I want to be, but at the same time, I think I've developed quite a bit," Connaughton said.

Connaughton now speaks much more confidently about his potential baseball future. He continues to throw, to keep his arm strong and loose, and said that if he decided to turn his focus away from basketball, he could easily see himself pitching in the Orioles system this summer. His professional experience amounts to just six games with Aberdeen, for which he posted a 2.51 ERA, but he said he believes he could be an All-Star in the major leagues.

"I think I could have some real success at that level," Connaughton said. "I think, to be quite honest, I could be that [caliber] of an All-Star. And I think that the success that I had in Aberdeen — even though I was only there for six weeks and it was only short-season A — but it wasn't so much about the numbers as it was about the strides I made personally from [the perspective of] a control and consistent speed and developing a consistent second and third pitch. I think I was able to do that, and it was only a six-week span, so I do believe I could get to the point where I could step in and be one of the top two guys in that rotation."

Connaughton said it wouldn't take long to get ready for baseball. As a two-sport athlete, he said he never had an offseason throwing program.

"[I throw] whenever I can," Connaughton said. "There's a fine balance between, [first], making sure all my focus is on the sport I'm playing right now, and then, [second], making sure that I'm not doing anything that could be detrimental to my arm. But with the things I've done and the ability I have to still get out there and throw and long-toss and do some things, throwing the football, doing some things to develop some arm strength, I have no doubt that when and if I go back to it, I'll be quite a bit stronger when it comes to arm strength. And I think I had a decently strong arm to start with.

"Baseball is unique, in my opinion, because even though I was a college guy and I'm 24 now, I haven't thrown a lot in my life. I haven't gotten that many innings because I didn't strictly play baseball."

Connaughton is confident that "if and when" he does repay the Orioles' patience in him, they will get a player who is much better than the one they saw in Aberdeen. Connaughton said having an NBA career, no matter how successful it is, will have made him a better athlete. He said he's dropped about 10 to 15 pounds and has cut his body fat to 5 or 6 percent.

"I'm a lot better right now than I was when I was in Aberdeen," he said. "I'm pretty confident in that, from both an arm-strength, control and secondary-pitch standpoint. People might look at it and say, 'Well, you really haven't been on a mound in the last year, two years. How could you be better?'

"There's a lot of things that have transpired in this profession that have overall helped my athleticism," Connaughton added. "I think when it comes to baseball, I don't think there are a lot of guys who have it at that caliber, especially as a pitcher. So just the ability to pick up on things quicker and knowing my body and being able to repeat a delivery at the major league level for 200 innings a year, I think that just comes naturally to me because of this sport."

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