Paul Atkinson Jr. providing big boost for Notre Dame with toughness, rebounding
Atkinson was named ACC Player of the Week and could make it two in a row if he puts together another strong outing Saturday night at Clemson.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — For Paul Atkinson Jr., the graduate transfer from Yale, this has been a season of transition.
In a matter of months, Notre Dame basketball’s emerging force has gone from “Boola Boola” — Yale’s fight song — to Bulla Road in South Bend to newfound bully of the low post for the ACC-leading Irish.
In this latest and most stunning development, Atkinson has been on the court for all but six minutes of consecutive wins over N.C. State and Louisville. The ironman act was crucial in the wake of a serious leg bruise that limited senior forward Nate Laszewski, Notre Dame’s leading rebounder, to just five total minutes in those two games.
For his efforts, Atkinson was named ACC Player of the Week and could make it two in a row if he puts together another strong outing Saturday night at Clemson.
“Things have been kind of clicking for me,” Atkinson said this week in his typically understated fashion. “I’ve been feeling a lot more comfortable getting into ACC play. And now, getting deep into the season, I’m feeling even more comfortable.”
Comfort for Atkinson has translated into three straight double-doubles and averages of 16.6 points and 10.8 rebounds over his last five games. That explosion followed a forgettable start to the new year in which Atkinson was held to single-digit scoring in four of seven games and managed to average just 5.6 rebounds in that span.
“I do think there was a bit of an adjustment period physically, what was coming at him at this level,” coach Mike Brey said. “And I think, as I’ve watched him the last two weeks, he’s kind of grasped that now, and he’s learned to use some craftiness when he can’t be athletic.”
Not that Atkinson can’t move his 6-9, 230-pound frame with the best of the league’s bigs.
“He is underrated athletically,” Brey said. “He’s bouncy and has great feet. I think it’s a great story that the Ivy League Player of the Year was the ACC Player of the Week. I’m -really proud of him.”
Where Atkinson towered over most of his opposition during his first three years at Yale, where he averaged 17.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in his final season, he now must dig deep into an ever-broadening bag of low-post tricks.
“I was a little crafty in the Ivy League but a lot bigger than some of the guys,” Atkinson said. “Here, it’s a little more craftiness and being able to finish a lot of tough shots through contact. It’s about making smart decisions, playing strong and taking the ball up when I’m at the rim.”
Though he’s not much of a shot-blocker, he has been a key component in the back of the 2-3 zone defense the Irish increasingly feature.
While long-armed guards Prentiss Hubb and Blake Wesley chase down three-point shooters out of the zone — which has been tweaked under the guidance of first-year assistant and former Irish standout Antoni Wyche — Atkinson’s toughness, rebounding and communication skills have made a big difference, as well.
“One of the things I worry about not having Nate is our defense,” Brey said. “He is such a voice and a rotator and a talker back there helping guys defensively. Paul needed to really get better at that, and he has.”
Rather than back down from the improved competition level, Atkinson took some hard coaching to heart.
“We really challenged him defensively,” Brey said. “He’s really grown, I think, in that area on how to guard these physical, big bodies and not give up an angle and how to help against fast guards on a ball screen. There’s more speed coming at him. He’s made great strides defensively.”
Trading elbows with Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, North Carolina’s Armando Bacot and Duke’s Mark Williams has forced Atkinson to adapt in order to survive.
You might say he has gone from New Haven to new man.