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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

Irish pros help break in new practice facility

Several former Notre Dame men’s basketball players visited South Bend on Monday, July 15, to tour the newly dedicated Rolfs Athletics Hall, the new practice home of the men’s and women’s basketball teams.

Guards Pat Connaughton and Demetrius Jackson and forwards Bonzie Colson, Jerian Grant and Zach Auguste were in attendance and helped introduce the facility, with several commenting on its impressiveness.

Irish senior Pat Connaughton swings after a dunk against Stetson on Nov. 10, 2013.
Irish senior Pat Connaughton swings after a dunk against Stetson on Nov. 10, 2013.

“It’s great. This is an NBA facility, honestly — this is like unbelievable,” Grant said. “It’s cool for the guys to be able to come here and get some work in.”

Colson agreed with Grant on the quality of the facility and the effect it will have on the program going forward.

“This is beautiful,” Colson said. “I think this is probably the best practice facility in the country. They have all the resources they need to be great.”

For Jackson, a native of South Bend, this building takes on a whole new meaning.

“I’m here a lot, obviously, because of [this] being my hometown,” Jackson said. “I’ve been utilizing this gym as my summer training grounds. … I’m very thankful to have a gym like this. This is an NBA-level facility, if not better than a lot of NBA [ones].”

Grant and Connaughton both graduated in 2015 after finishing as the first- and third-leading scorers on the team, respectively, and leading the Irish to a 32-6 record and an Elite Eight appearance. Grant was selected with the 19th overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft by the Washington Wizards before finding his way to the New York Knicks. He posted career highs of 8.4 points and 2.3 rebounds per game with the Chicago Bulls in 2017-18, but saw his numbers decrease this past season with the Orlando Magic. However, he remains optimistic and is committing himself to improving by adapting to the modern NBA.

“It was good. I didn’t get to play the way I wanted to, but I had a great experience,” Grant said. “I loved Orlando and it was pretty fun. [I’m working on] some ball handling and shooting. Obviously, the league has changed a lot now — where it’s a lot of [3-pointers] — so just making sure I’m staying in shape and staying on point.”

Connaughton was taken in the second round by the Brooklyn Nets with the 41st overall selection but made his NBA debut with the Portland Trail Blazers. He joined the Milwaukee Bucks this past season as a free agent and averaged career highs of 6.9 points, 4.2 rebounds and two assists per game.

Colson, a 2018 graduate, went undrafted after suffering a broken foot his senior season but signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Summer League. After being waived he joined Cleveland’s NBA G League affiliate, the Canton Charge. In January 2019, he joined Connaughton as he signed a two-way contract with the Milwaukee Bucks to play for them and their G League affiliate, the Wisconsin Herd. Colson expressed what it means to him to be able to play alongside his old Notre Dame teammate.

“It’s been great. He’s been like a big brother to me, being a leader,” Colson said. “He’s helping me learn the ropes on and off the court. And it’s just been great relying on him when I have a question, calling to go out to lunch, dinners, things like that. It’s been a great run.”

Colson averaged 12.3 minutes of action in eight appearances with the Bucks and recorded 4.9 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. He commented on his first year and what he is looking to improve in his game.

“I’m on a two-way [contract] now so hopefully [I’ll] legit get a contract, but [my goal is to] continue to just mold and shape my body, continue to just get better, shoot better from the [3-point line and] free-throw line, defend multiple positions and just understand the game more as best I can,” Colson said. “I think those are some of the goals I have.”

Auguste graduated in 2016 after helping the Irish make the Elite Eight for the second straight year, while Jackson elected to forgo his senior season and enter the NBA draft early. Auguste signed with the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Summer League after going undrafted but was waived by the team before seeing NBA action. He played last season with Galatasaray S.K. in Istanbul, Turkey, but joined the Trail Blazers Summer League roster.

Jackson was selected by the Boston Celtics with the 45th overall pick. He spent one season in Boston, one with the Houston Rockets and played for the Philadelphia 76ers this past season. He joined Philadelphia on a two-way contract and saw action in six games last year but joined Auguste on the Portland Summer League roster as a free agent.

"It was fun,” Jackson said of reuniting with Auguste. “It made me comfortable right away to have a former teammate, a guy that I’m really close with and be able to compete with him at a high level. It was cool. I think in the first game we had an alley-oop and we almost got a couple more, but we had the one, so that was good.”

Jackson expressed what it meant for the five former teammates to get together once more.

“To have this group together is very special,” he said. “It just brings back a lot of great memories. And now we can bring back all the things we’ve learned over our professional years and challenge each other and try to make each other better, so this is very special.”

Grant echoed the sentiment.

“Obviously when you first see the guys it’s all fun. You’re glad to see them [because] you haven’t seen them in a while,” he said. “But once we step on the court, we know it’s time to work, because that’s our job is to play basketball and we’re here to get better, and to have this type of facility, it’s amazing.”

For Grant, his Notre Dame basketball ties run deeper than most, as he maintains a relationship with former Irish women’s basketball star Skylar Diggins-Smith.

“It’s been great,” he said. “You know, the crazy part is, her best friend is my fiancee, so that’s actually something that’s been pretty cool. I’ve been able to spend some time with her, talk to her and just have that relationship. It’s pretty cool since we both went to Notre Dame. … We’re pros so we get to talk about the pro game, and just talk about Notre Dame, things like that.”

The pros also said they would offer the current Irish players advice from their experiences.

“[I would tell them to] just stay the course, stay patient,” Colson said. “They can just work and grind, that’s all you can really do. If you continue to just work on your game and understand that it’s a long season — there’s a lot of ups and downs. If you stick to it, … everything will kind of work [out], and that’s what I kind of live by. Just working on every day getting better, getting better every day, sticking to it, being a pro, on and off the court.”

Grant provided similar advice in the context of the team‘s long-term vision.

“You always gotta keep working,” he said. “Just because you get there doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the road. You’ve got to play to stay, and play to get better and actually make your mark on the league.”

He also had high praise for the performance of head coach Mike Brey.

“He’s been huge,” he said. “Obviously, most players that come here aren’t the high recruits, so just the knowledge that he gives you, the confidence he gives you to work hard, to become a pro, an NBA player, is amazing.”

The 2019-20 NBA season begins Oct. 22. The Irish will open their season Nov. 8 at North Carolina.

A version of this story was published July 18.