SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Pat Connaughton drives his brand-new 2015 black Jeep Wrangler down Edison Street, through the stoplight and hangs a right onto Joyce Drive toward Notre Dame's basketball facility. The vehicle is the only significant purchase Connaughton has made since depositing the six-figure check he was handed back in June as a direct result of his athletic prowess.
The SUV is a symbol of the crossroads Notre Dame's leader and top rebounder faces. The SUV owes its existence in Connaughton's life to baseball, but today the road it travels is toward basketball. Connaughton is a dying breed: a two-sport college star. What makes him even more unique, though, is that he's a 21-year-old who didn't just take his payday and run.
The 6-foot-5, 214-pound right-hander was selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball draft last June and earned $428,100 in the process. However, multiple Major League Baseball sources told ESPN.com that number could have been somewhere closer to $1 million.
"He definitely cost himself some money," said one high-ranking MLB executive who believed Connaughton would have gone somewhere in the top two rounds if he hadn't been adamant about returning to Notre Dame.
"Patrick is of high moral character and wasn't going to lie to people," said Pat's father, Len. "That eliminated a bunch of teams from taking him at all."
Connaughton could have easily bid farewell to college hoops and begun preparing full time for his pro baseball career. It was the logical move in an attempt to climb the organizational ladder and get to the majors as quickly as possible. But he wasn't ready to finish his basketball career just yet -- and also wanted to remain committed to coach Mike Brey and his basketball teammates in South Bend, Indiana.
One of those teammates, NBA prospect Jerian Grant, was facing questions of his own last offseason. Grant was suspended for the second half of last season because of academics, and both players were on the fence about returning to school.
"We talked about it," Grant said. "I don't want to say it was a joint decision, but his decision definitely played into me coming back."
Connaughton's commitment, and its impact on Grant, is reaping serious dividends for the Fighting Irish. Grant has put up eye-popping numbers and highlight-reel dunks thus far, and Connaughton manages to remain under the radar despite being the only player on a Power Five team to average at least 13.5 points and eight rebounds per game while shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc.
More importantly, after a down season in which the Irish went 15-17, the Notre Dame has ascended to the No. 13 ranking.
"In my 15 years here, no one has been more responsible than Pat Connaughton," Brey said. "He's an unbelievable ambassador for us and has shown tremendous loyalty."
Pondering the end of his basketball career is actually nothing new for Pat Connaughton.
Connaughton was a three-sport high school star at Saint John's Prep in Danvers, Massachusetts -- a quarterback, pitcher/shortstop/center fielder and also a versatile basketball player, albeit one who didn't have a single Division I hoops offer as a junior.
The baseball offers came early and often, though. Boston College came first, Virginia followed and North Carolina -- then his dream school -- also offered. Connaughton was rated the 33rd best player in the MLB draft coming out of high school, according to Perfect Game, but fell to the San Diego Padres in the 38th round after he made it clear he was a lock to attend college.
Then, just as baseball began edging basketball out of the picture, Connaughton went from an anonymous Division II basketball recruit with an offer from nearby Bentley University to a top-100 kid thanks to one spectacular week at the AAU Nationals in Orlando, Florida, following his junior year. Soon after Connaughton scored 33 points and grabbed 20 rebounds in a game, word began to travel. It wasn't long before heavy hitters such as former UCLA coach Ben Howland and ex-Tennessee head man Bruce Pearl were front and center for his games at the event.
"That week completely changed my entire life," Connaughton said.
That was also when Notre Dame first showed interest.
He immediately became a key contributor on a Notre Dame team that won 22 games and reached the NCAA tournament in his freshman season, when Connaughton's juggling skills were tested often. After scoring 23 points and grabbing 11 boards in a February win over Marquette, Connaughton's teammates prepared for some well-deserved rest. Connaughton? He headed immediately to baseball practice.
MAKING BASEBALL WAIT
Connaughton spent about two weeks in Florida this past summer brushing up on pitching mechanics, then approximately two months riding buses in the lower levels of the minor leagues. The qualities the Orioles saw in him were on full display -- Connaughton tossed 14⅔ innings, allowed four earned runs and struck out 10 batters in his time with the Aberdeen IronBirds (Class A short season).
A fastball that had been consistently clocked in the low 90s reached as high as 98 on the radar gun during Connaughton's time with the IronBirds. His stay was short, of course -- Connaughton had to return to campus so he could go on a foreign tour to Italy with the basketball team.
"He's a terrific athlete who is just scratching the surface of what he can do," Dan Duquette, the Orioles' executive vice president of baseball operations, told ESPN. "He's got a great arm and we're hoping he puts his energy into baseball full time."
Connaughton had another reason to return to South Bend -- an academic one. He could have attended Harvard coming out of high school, and he boasts a 3.0 GPA in Notre Dame's prestigious Mendoza Business School
"He was loyal and wanted his degree," Len Connaughton said.
Even when he could have made seven figures without it. Didn't the $400K show Connaughton the real business was in his powerful right arm?
"The signing bonus is a ton of money, especially for a 21-year-old," Connaughton admits. "But I'm not going to live off that money. At some point, I'm going to live off a college degree."
"He's not common -- kind of like [Chicago White Sox pitcher] Jeff [Samardzija] and [Seattle Seahawks quarterback] Russell Wilson," said Sam Samardzija, who now serves as Connaughton's family adviser after watching his own two-sport star and son, Jeff, reach a similar crossroads after college. Jeff Samardzija chose a baseball career over possible stardom as an NFL receiver.
"Not a lot of guys like [Connaughton] come around," Sam Samardzija added. "He's just wired differently."
"There's a real value for an athlete getting a college degree," Duquette said. "I admire him for finishing up at Notre Dame, but I'm much more looking forward to seeing him pitch than play basketball this season."
Complicating matters for the Orioles is Connaughton's rising pro stock on the hardwood.
"He's got a chance to be drafted," one NBA scout said. "He's not a first-round guy, but I wouldn't be shocked if someone winds up grabbing him in the second round."
Connaughton and Sam Samardzija are hopeful that a strong college hoops campaign could result in leverage and a chance to go back to the negotiating table in baseball. The Orioles hold his rights, and unless Connaughton is drafted by the NBA, he won't have much to renegotiate. But the possibility is there.
"We'll explore the options after the season and cross that bridge when the time is right," Sam Samardzija said. "We're excited about the opportunity both Notre Dame and the Orioles have given him to come back to school."
Connaughton admits it's more likely that his basketball career will end after Notre Dame's season concludes, but he learned long ago that things can change in a hurry.
"I came back for one last go-around to see. People think unthinkable, but who knows?" Connaughton said of his chances of playing the NBA. "No one thought I could even play D-I basketball."