WASHINGTON — Former Orioles draft pick Pat Connaughton is following his dream of playing in the NBA, nearly three months into a rookie season with the Portland Trail Blazers that has been short on playing time but, in his eyes, possesses plenty of promise.
Still, Connaughton — a talented right-handed pitcher who was the Orioles' fourth-round draft selection out of Notre Dame in 2014 — said baseball is never far from his mind. And even though he's playing in the NBA, he believes his career will eventually lead him to a major league mound.
"In my mind, I will pitch in MLB," Connaughton said Monday afternoon before the Trail Blazers' game against the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center. "I want to achieve that. That's a dream of mine. I don't know when it will be, but a lot of pitching is based on how many bullets are in your arm compared to your age."
The 23-year-old believes time is on his side. He thinks he can juggle both. He pitched 14 1/3 innings at Short-A Aberdeen after the Orioles drafted him, then returned to Notre Dame to play basketball in his senior season, helping lead the Fighting Irish to the Elite Eight. Connaughton was selected by the Brooklyn Nets in the second round — 41st overall — and was soon after traded to Portland.
Connaughton told the Orioles he was pursuing an NBA career — for now. He signed a three-year deal with the Trail Blazers, two of those are guaranteed, and made Portland's 15-man roster. At every turn, he has been told he will need to choose one sport, but Connaughton is still confident he has what it takes to play both basketball and baseball.
"It's always on my mind," Connaughton said about playing baseball. "The way I look at it, one of my main mantras my whole life has been, until someone forces me, which I don't think will happen, I never want to give up on one of them because think about all the kids who want to be a pro in one of them, let alone two of them.
"In today's day and age, where so many kids are taught to specialize so early, I want to show them you don't have to — at a young age, high school age, college age and hopefully a professional age."
He's now one of the shorter athletes playing on a court full of giants, but Connaughton's 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame makes him stand out on the mound, as does a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and has hit 98. Even though he pitched just six games (four starts) at Aberdeen in 2014, the Orioles still have hopes that Connaughton soon concentrates on baseball and eventually develops into one of the homegrown arms the club desperately needs.
"I'm going to leave a candle at the window for Pat Connaughton," Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "And in the meantime, I might go to church and light a candle that he has an epiphany that he can be a major league pitcher.
"He has to be playing to be developing his skills to be considered a prospect. It sounds like right now, he's trying to establish himself as an NBA basketball player."
The Orioles control Connaughton's baseball rights for seven years after drafting him, so they have his rights through 2020, and they could extend that for six more years if they placed him on the major league roster.
Connaughton said — if anything — playing basketball is keeping him ready for a future in baseball.
"Basketball has always really helped me physically for baseball," he said. "I'm in a lot better shape than a lot of baseball guys or a lot of baseball pitchers just because of the nature of the sport. I'm more athletic than a lot of them because of the nature of the sport and it allows me to pick up on things from a mechanical standpoint. … If you look at it from a basketball standpoint, major things to work on in basketball aren't getting jacked like in football. You know what I mean? It's more about lean athleticism and leg strength, stuff like that."
Connaughton said the time to explore basketball is now while he has age and athleticism on his side. Baseball, he believes, should be there as long as he keeps his arm strength. He believes it ultimately might lead to a longer baseball career because he's not putting wear and tear on his arm.
"There are a lot of opportunities in baseball that you can achieve down the line as opposed to this sport, where it requires so much athleticism, you probably have to achieve things [in basketball] sooner than later," Connaughton said.
So for now, his focus is on basketball.
"The baseball thing, it's good to have options," Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "But I think once he came to Portland, he was invested in being an NBA player. And that's what he's done. … Pat's a very smart player. He's a good all-around player. He's tough. Obviously, he hasn't gotten the chance to play a lot, but he comes to work every day, practices hard, works on his all-around game — offensively, defensively, ball-handling, shooting, passing. He's been a great teammate and hopefully he has a bright future."
Even though he's in the middle of the NBA season right now, Connaughton said he still regularly throws to keep his arm loose and strong.
"It's just like any job," Connaughton said. "We're either in the arena or working out during certain hours of the day, but you have other hours for things that you want to do during the day as a human being, and for me, maybe I don't go shopping. Maybe I go into my backyard and throw against a net. I never want to lose that ability I have, because think about all the kids who would kill to have that ability.
"You have times when guys take naps," he added. "A lot of guys, this is physically demanding on their bodies, but I've been [juggling different sports] my whole life, so to throw is actually a day off for me. I do it whenever. I don't do it when we're on the road, but when we're on the road, I can do sleeper stretch. You can do strengthening with a heavy-weight ball, stuff like that."
Still, there's plenty of doubt as to when Connaughton will again pitch for the Orioles. When he signed with the Trail Blazers, it was believed the Orioles would attempt to recoup the $428,000 signing bonus he received in 2014. They did not, allowing him to pursue an NBA career with the belief he would return to baseball sooner or later.
Connaughton indicated that he probably wouldn't play baseball this summer — the basketball summer league would likely be more beneficial to establish him in the NBA — but he said he hopes to return to the Orioles minor league system soon after that.
"A lot of people look at me like I have three heads or four when I say it," Connaughton said. "Obviously this past summer coming into the season and probably this summer, I'll have to do some basketball things, summer league, things like that. … But down the line, whether it's this year, whether it's next year, whether it's my second potential contract in the NBA, or however it works out, that's how I've always looked at it.
"As crazy as it sounds, as you get older in this league, you have the summers to do what you please," Connaughton added. "They want you to obviously work out, but being a professional, they believe you're mature enough to achieve that on your own. As a pitcher, especially a starting pitcher, you pitch once every five days, and there's no reason they wouldn't want me to stay in shape. And in baseball, you're doing a lot of things you need for basketball. So the way I look at it, there's potential. It's wild. It's not something many people believe."
Connaughton played only the final 1:37 in the Trail Blazers' 108-98 win over the Wizards, entering when the game was well in hand. He has played in just 17 of Portland's 44 games this season, averaging 2.9 minutes and 0.6 points per game.
That lack of playing time is new to Connaughton, who was Notre Dame's team captain as a senior, but he said he has learned a lot. It's the first time he has been able to commit to basketball exclusively, so he compares it to how much he learned in his season in the Orioles minor leagues in 2014.
"There was the summer I pitched in Aberdeen and all I did was baseball," Connaughton said. "I got a lot better. My fastball got faster. My off-speed got sharper. I only walked [three] guys. … Same thing with this. I've never focused on this full-time and I have been able to this year and I've gotten a lot better at it, and I think I can have success with it. You put both of them together and do it as your job, which I've been doing and balancing school at the same time, then you have an opportunity to do things people really don't think are feasible and can only dream of."