TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN LARIVIERE – Pat Connaughton is introduced during Fan Fest on Sunday at Moda Center.
Now that he is past the rookie stage, Pat Connaughton hopes he is ready to take the next step in his NBA career.
The Trail Blazers’ second-year shooting guard was mostly an afterthought for coach Terry Stotts last season, his game action coming primarily in garbage time.
Connaughton would love to change that this season.
“I spent the summer working on all the things I need to do at this level to have success, get meaningful minutes and help this team win,” Connaughton said Sunday after the Blazers’ Fan Fest scrimmage at Moda Center.
The 6-5 Connaughton looked sharp and relaxed in the scrimmage, scoring 16 points on 7-for-13 shooting with five rebounds. The former Notre Dame standout, chosen with the 41st overall pick in the second round of the 2015 draft, was 2 for 4 from 3-point range.
“Pat had a good rhythm and shot it with no hesitation,” Stotts said.
It was a continuation of Connaughton’s play during Las Vegas Summer League, where he averaged 14.4 points and 3.4 rebounds in five games. It was Connaughton’s long 3-point shot in sudden-death overtime that beat Utah.
“I came in with a chip on my shoulder, thinking, ‘This is my summer-league team,’” said Connaughton, 23. “The way I played helped me gain confidence going into this season, and helped me know what I had to do to help this team.”
And that’s by being more than just a 3-point shooter.
“After last season, I replayed in my mind what I needed to do to get on the floor,” said the Arlington, Massachusetts native, who played only 152 minutes in the regular season and playoffs as a rookie. “It’s been so long since I’ve had to worry about that. It took me a month as a freshman to get into the starting lineup at Notre Dame.
“This season, I want to make sure I don’t just come in and take a shot, and if I make it, I stay in the game; if I miss it, I don’t. I want to be able to provide something on the defensive end. I want to be able to use my athleticism in ways to help the team. I’d like to be able to get comfortable in the game before one shot makes or breaks my minutes.”
Immediately after last season, Connaughton returned to Massachusetts to work on strength and conditioning and to hone his basketball skills with Mike Crotty Jr., the point guard on Williams College’s 2003 NCAA Division III championship squad.
“We worked on ball-handling, taking shots off ball screens, shooting off the dribble, being able to make the mid-range shots,” Connaughton said. “It’s about building on being just being a catch-and-shoot guy. It’s all about the confidence you have, and the confidence comes from the work you put in.
“Last year, I was a confident kid, but I didn’t have the polished skills I needed coming from college as a 4/3 (power forward/small forward) to the NBA as primarily a 2 (shooting guard).”
After summer league, Connaughton returned to the Boston area and worked on drills provided by Blazers assistant coaches.
“It was great to take those back home and work on them whenever and however many times a day I wanted to,” he said.
Stotts notes an improvement in Connaughton’s game.
“Pat has put in a lot of work, particularly with shooting but also with his ball-handling,” the fifth-year Blazer mentor said. “I like his determination. He’s strong, he’s quick, he’s athletic.
“All young players need to get better in a lot of areas. At Pat’s position, it’s about being a consistent shooter, ball-handling, defending.”
Problem is, Connaughton is on a team that is loaded at shooting guard. Starter CJ McCollum is the reigning NBA Most Improved Player Award winner. This summer, backup Allen Crabbe signed a four-year, $75-million contract extension. Then there is versatile swing man Evan Turner, brought to Portland with a four-year, $70-million deal. That wouldn’t seem to leave a lot of minutes for Connaughton, though he professes not to be discouraged.
“The way the NBA’s going, it’s getting smaller,” Connaughton said. “You might need another shooter coming off the bench. It’s about working, learning from CJ and ‘Dame’ (Damian Lillard), and providing something off the bench. I need to be in a position where I’m not a liability on defense, and I can help out in a combination of ways.”
NOTES: Portland plays host to Utah Monday night in the preseason opener for both teams. “We’ve been working out together, we’ve been conditioning together, we’ve been swimming together, we’ve been playing pickup games together,” Lillard said. “Practice was sharp from the beginning. I feel like we’re in a good spot right now and we’re prepared for the first game.” … Blazers players huddled together during the national anthem prior to Sunday night’s scrimmage. “We wanted to show our brotherhood, that we stand up for something, in support of what a lot of other athletes are doing,” Lillard said. “We came up with it as a group. It was what everybody believes and what everybody is comfortable with.” Lillard was told some believe it was a disrespectful act since the players did not look at the flag during the anthem. “When you talk about a protest, we stand up for the national anthem to honor the flag, to honor the country we represent,” he said. “I’m a proud American, but the reason behind the protest, I share that same belief being an African-American. Every guy on the team shares that belief as well.” Lillard said the Blazers players will follow suit again Monday night.