Paul Atkinson’s Unexpected Change In Plans Led Him To Notre Dame
In many ways, Notre Dame is Paul Atkinson’s alternate route, an extra chapter to his basketball career he initially never planned on writing.
If COVID-19 did not lead the Ivy League to shut down all sports this school year, Atkinson would be playing his final year of college basketball at Yale. He would be defending his 2019-20 Ivy Co-Player of the Year award and trying to steer the Bulldogs back to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in his career — perhaps a launching point into a pro career somewhere.
Instead, the league decided in November to scrap its basketball season, the long-expected outcome since it canceled football season in July. The move launched Atkinson into a second recruitment and down a new path, because the Ivy’s rule that graduate students cannot participate in sports meant one more season Yale in 2021-22 was off the table.
Shortly after the league’s announcement, Atkinson put his name in the transfer portal. Two months later, after a recruiting process without any in-person contact or campus visits, the 6-10, 220-pound forward chose Notre Dame as his next destination. As a graduate transfer, he’s immediately eligible for next season.
“It’s a team that I think can be really good next year and make a run,” Atkinson said. “I could come in and contribute in whatever ways they need me to. That’s one of the big factors I was looking for.”
On Jan. 10, Atkinson announced his commitment to the Irish on social media, choosing them over finalists Miami, Iowa, North Carolina State and Texas. He saw an opportunity for minutes. A large crop of returning, experienced guards. A clear need to fill. An overall comfort.
“There would be a lot of playing time at all those schools,” Atkinson said. “I don’t think that was the biggest factor. I had pretty good options. It just came down to where I wanted to go, and Notre Dame tugged at me. It’s the place I felt the pull toward.”
Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey saw the clear fit when they noticed his name in the portal. Brey and assistant Ryan Humphrey reached out, made their pitch and built a relationship before long. The vibe from Notre Dame’s staff struck him. Particularly his interactions with Brey.
“He was the No. 1 guy I talked to,” Atkinson said. “I talked to Coach Humphrey a lot, but Coach Brey was reaching out and showing his enthusiasm for having me on the team, really just emphasizing how much he wanted to use me and what he saw me doing next year.
“They have a good group of guards. Losing [starting center Juwan] Durham, I’m hoping to go in and try to fill his spot.”
Atkinson will arrive on campus this summer with that role firmly in his sights.
Notre Dame’s in-house options to replace Durham, who is not expected back for a sixth year, are current freshmen Matt Zona and Elijah Taylor. The former is averaging 5.3 minutes per game. The latter won’t play this year due to an ankle injury. Atkinson’s experience and track record of production make him the logical choice for the job.
On paper and on film, Atkinson appears more than capable. The West Palm Beach, Fla., native averaged 17.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.2 steals in 30 games as a junior last season. He shot 63 percent from the field, which ranked seventh nationally.
The breakout followed two years of contributions as a complementary piece, the first as a result of an injury to then-sophomore forward Jordan Bruner (who now plays at Alabama). Atkinson stepped into Bruner’s starting spot and averaged 9.3 points in 24.2 minutes per game as a freshman in 2017-18.
He came off the bench as a sophomore, averaging 9.1 points on 69-percent shooting. Yale was 19-9 in Ivy League play his first two years, with an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2018-19.
As a junior, Atkinson slid back into the starting lineup, next to Bruner, and helped Yale go 23-7 and 11-3 in the Ivy. The Bulldogs were regular-season league champions and the favorite to win the conference tournament before it was canceled due to COVID-19.
“I had two years of experience, a lot of confidence built up and I was ready to show I was the next guy up,” Atkinson said.
As an Ivy-League-to-ACC graduate transfer, he next has to prove he can play up a level. The sample size against power-conference opponents indicates a bump in competition is manageable for him.
In Yale’s win over Clemson on Dec. 22, 2019, Atkinson scored 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting. He had four rebounds, four assists and was 3 of 5 on free throws. Eight days later, he had 10 points and seven rebounds in a 70-67 loss at North Carolina. He put 12 points and seven rebounds and two blocks on Penn State in a 58-56 loss in November 2019.
In 2018, Atkinson scored 17 points off the bench in a win over Miami. As a freshman, he averaged 10.5 points and 5.0 rebounds on 52-percent shooting in four games against high-major opponents.
“I didn’t play against anyone who I thought, ‘Wow, I don’t belong on the court with them,’” Atkinson said.
Atkinson has split his senior year between New Haven, Conn., and Florida while taking all his classes online. He will graduate with a degree in economics in May and plans to pursue his master’s in finance or business analytics.
With Atkinson in the fold, Notre Dame has 12 scholarship players for next season.
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