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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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‘He loves playing basketball and he’s having fun doing it’: The time is now for breakout Irish star J.R. Konieczny

Konieczny has enjoyed a breakout season in his third year at Notre Dame

When junior guard J.R. Konieczny committed to play basketball at Notre Dame in August 2019, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong goal. The South Bend native starred at local St. Joseph High School and dreamed of one day donning the Irish’s blue and gold.

Less than two years later, that dream became a reality when Konieczny arrived on campus for preseason practice the summer prior to his freshman year.

But while his path up to that point sounds like a storybook, the next two years quickly turned into a series of challenging twists and turns.

As a true freshman, Konieczny — a four-star recruit according to ESPN — played sparingly, averaging just over three minutes of game time in seven appearances. The following year, Notre Dame opted to redshirt him, and longtime Irish head coach Mike Brey announced midseason that he would be stepping down at the end of the year.

For someone whose life revolves around basketball, sitting out for two years was an extremely difficult experience. But Konieczny’s strong support system helped him stay grounded throughout the process.

“It’s very difficult, I just had to get over the fact that there’s more to life than just basketball itself,” Konieczny said prior to this season about being kept on the sideline. “And I have my family, I have my friends, I have the coaches here … They’ve been by my side this whole time, so I’m just really grateful for them.”

It would have been difficult to fault Konieczny for considering transferring during any point in that time period. 

But he never had any intention of leaving his hometown. Any possible doubts he had were immediately assuaged upon meeting new Irish head coach Micah Shrewsberry for the first time.

“Loyalty’s kind of been a big thing for me... I talked to my family, talked to my friends, a lot of them said they would support me with whatever I chose to do. I just love it here, honestly,” Konieczny said about his decision to return to Notre Dame. “Coach Shrewsberry, he came in and he said, ‘We don’t want guys that are one foot in, one foot out. We want guys that are fully locked in with the program.’ That’s when I knew I wanted to stay.”

With a new era of Irish basketball set to begin, Konieczny’s time off the floor brought him into the season more motivated than ever.

“I’ve just kind of redefined my whole thinking when it comes to basketball,” Konieczny said. “I just want to be out there on the court, I want to be playing again, so I have a new hunger for the game. I have a new love for the game, new respect for the game.”

However, his wait to become a major contributor for the Irish continued at the start of his junior season. Konieczny played only 20 combined minutes in Notre Dame’s first two games and scored just 4 total points.

Ironically, it was during the Irish’s largest defeat of the season to date that Konieczny established himself as a player that Notre Dame needed on the court. In an 83-59 loss to Auburn at the Legends Classic in Brooklyn, he set huge career highs with 18 points and 11 rebounds in 29 minutes of action. The next day, he recorded another double-double while sinking a pair of crucial free throws to lead Notre Dame to an overtime victory over Oklahoma State. He also earned his first career start, a spot he has yet to relinquish in the 17 games since.

As the Irish’s non-conference slate rolled on, Konieczny began to cement himself as an offensive centerpiece. That led to Notre Dame’s home matchup against Virginia on Dec. 30. The game was dubbed “574 Day” (the northern Indiana area code) to celebrate South Bend, and it only made sense for Konieczny to dominate in front of a raucous hometown crowd.

He did just that, drilling three consecutive 3-pointers in the first three minutes of the game to put the Irish ahead 9-0 en route to stunning the heavily favored Cavaliers 76-54. Konieczny finished the day with 17 points and 8 rebounds while connecting on 6 of his 8 shot attempts.

“Honestly, I’m kind of [at a] loss for words right now, just being out there, the atmosphere was amazing. I had a smile on my face through half the game, I couldn’t get the smile off my face just seeing the fans there and all that stuff. It just makes me happy,” he said after the game. “That’s the biggest thing for us, we want to put on a show for the people here in South Bend, so that’s what we’re going to try to do every single night.”

Shrewsberry has been quick to praise Konieczny, in part because of the versatility he provides for the Irish on the floor as the team’s second-leading scorer, rebounder and 3-point shooter. But just as important is the positive energy that he brings, especially critical for a young group that has struggled to win consistently this season. After two years of no game action, Konieczny is having more fun playing basketball than ever and taking nothing for granted.

“The one thing about J.R. — and our staff will talk about it all the time — he just brings a joy every single day. He loves playing basketball and he’s having fun doing it. And when you see that, it just takes you back sometimes to, ‘Why are we playing?’ And we play because we love it,” Shrewsberry said on the Wake Up the Echoes show. “We love coaching guys that have that joy and he brings that joy on a daily basis.”

For Konieczny, that love for the game is what drives his insatiable will to get better each and every day.

“It just gives me the sense of being free, and I can go out there and kind of do what I want to do,” he said about basketball. “It’s kind of like an art form, really, you get to go out there and perfect your craft every single day. And you really have to love the work to love basketball, I think. So I love going out there, practicing every day, trying to become the best version of myself that I can be.”

And the Irish have needed that best version, as Konieczny has made the rapid leap from redshirting last winter to shouldering a significant load on both ends of the court this season.

“It’s been different this year than the past two years, that’s for sure. I’ve definitely been having a lot more fun, finally being out there and playing. It definitely took me a few games to get comfortable playing at the college level, and the pace of the game is so much different,” Konieczny said. “Coach Shrews and all the other coaches, they’ve been doing a great job getting me more comfortable in my role and playing freely and loosely out there … And that intensity [at practice] — we know that it’s all love at the end of the day. They just want us to get better and they want us to trust and believe in the process.”

An Indiana native himself, Shrewsberry understands what it means to have local players like Konieczny and freshman guard Markus Burton (who grew up in nearby Mishawaka) suit up for the Irish.

“I think it’s special for [Konieczny and Burton] to be young kids and see it and watch it and really kind of dream about what it would be like, and now to be a part of it, see all of your hard work coming to fruition. There’s just an energy and a vibe that the people of South Bend — they love their own,” Shrewsberry said. “They’ve seen these guys, watched them throughout their careers, and now they get more years of getting to cheer for them right here.”

That’s why it’s easy to hear the roar that rises up from the crowd at Purcell Pavilion when Konieczny is announced in the starting lineup for the Irish. It’s a moment that’s not lost on Konieczny, who waited more than four years after committing to Notre Dame to finally hear his name called as part of the starting five.

“Yeah, I do,” Konieczny said when asked whether he gets chills every time he hears ‘the junior guard from South Bend’ blasting over the Purcell Pavilion loudspeakers prior to tipoff. “Definitely. Definitely.”

This season — and certainly the current five-game losing streak — has brought challenges for Notre Dame. But Konieczny, the Irish’s hometown hero, is not taking a single second of his time with the Irish for granted. He’s ready to continue working hard and has full confidence in his team’s ability to turn these losses into wins, sooner rather than later.

After two years of uncertainty about whether it would ever be the case, Konieczny is at the forefront for Notre Dame and will be a leader for the program for the foreseeable future as it looks to return to the top of the ACC. It took a long wait, but J.R. Konieczny has arrived. And he and the Irish are just getting started.

“I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Konieczny said about playing for Notre Dame. “I’m really blessed and fortunate to be so close [to home] and have this opportunity. I’m just grateful.”

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