Notre Dame's Best Player Won't Shake the Memory of His Late Teammate
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this outside threat is shooting for two.
By Matt Foley
V.J. Beachem hears the critical radio calls. He reads the mean tweets. He’s not aggressive enough, they say. He’s afraid to take the big shot. Luckily for Notre Dame, their key to a potential March Madness run is adept at blocking out the noise.
“I listen to a lot of Frank Ocean, man. I like to keep it stress-free before the games.”
Boasting NBA-level athleticism and premier shooting ability, Beachem is far and away Notre Dame’s most gifted player. But the 6-foot-8-inch senior’s time in South Bend has been marred by inconsistent play. This year, though, particularly in the second half of the season, 22-year-old Beachem has caught fire. Though he still turns in occasional single-digit disappearing acts, his outside shot is enough to put any defense on high alert. At 23-8, Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish rank second in the ACC, with Beachem scoring 15.4 points a game. He recently surpassed 1,000 career points. Things look good for the Irish. But Notre Dame’s postseason hopes, and Beachem’s NBA aspirations, hinge on which version of the still-inconsistent sharpshooter appears in March.
The mixed performance has tamed an ego that might otherwise be soaring on a star in the making. When asked to explain his dismal two-point outing in a January 4 win over Louisville, Notre Dame’s captain seems proud of his teammates for pulling through when the Cardinals shut him down. “Whether I score two or 25 points, if we win, it’s fine with me,” he tells OZY. It’s not the voice of a ball hog. But, ironically, the team may be looking for him to lead a little bit tougher. “We need him to be an aggressive scorer for us,” Coach Mike Brey said in a preseason press release. “He needs to hunt his stuff.”
Beachem grew up in New Haven, Indiana, a stone’s throw from Fort Wayne. His lanky frame and silky jump shot stood out in one of the state’s most fertile talent grounds. Like millions of Hoosiers before him, the only child learned the game via one-on-one training sessions in the driveway with his father. Victor Beachem, a factory worker in Fort Wayne, taught his boy proper shooting technique, hesitation dribbles and smooth midrange up-and-unders. He still works his son out every chance he gets, usually during the summer.
By the time he reached high school, Beachem was a known commodity on the recruiting scene. It was widely assumed that Indiana would snag the four-star recruit. He finished his prep career as a two-time All-State selection and the 2013 Fort Wayne News Sentinel Player of the Year. Joining him on those two All-State teams was his best friend, future Irish teammate and current Boston Celtics point guard Demetrius Jackson. The opportunity to play alongside Jackson played a pivotal role in helping Brey sign his wing scorer of the future.
Beachem was far from NBA-ready when he arrived in South Bend. He came off the bench in his first two years, providing scoring depth behind two future NBAers — Chicago Bulls point guard Jerian Grant and Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard Pat Connaughton. Last year, following their departure, Beachem took over a starting role and has held it ever since. He led his team to a second consecutive Elite Eight, averaging 17.5 points in the tournament. NBA scouts salivated. With Brey’s blessing, Beachem declared for the 2016 NBA Draft.
Luckily for Irish fans, Beachem chose to return to school after not receiving a first-round draft projection. But he walked straight into tragedy: On May 11, eight days after withdrawing from the draft, Beachem organized an evening pickup session with some former high school teammates. One of the regulars in attendance was his close friend Steve McElvene, a 7-foot center who had just finished a promising sophomore season at Dayton. “Big Steve was playing so well,” Beachem tells OZY. “We talked about how much potential he had and how he was going to be the next big name out of Fort Wayne.”
The next morning, hours after leaving the gym with his friend, McElvene was found dead of a previously undiagnosed cardiac issue. Losing his friend forced Beachem to reconsider his daily approach, both on and off the court, and to mature emotionally. He says that McElvene’s smile and love of life are what he has most tried to emulate. “You never know when God’s going to decide that it’s your time to join Him,” Beachem tells OZY. “I’ve got to represent for Steve now.” One way to do that, he says, is by “leading my team.”
That sneaky shot blocker – @VjBeachem in the all-time top 20 at Notre Dame for blocked shots – two in first four minutes at NC State
— @NDmbb Athletic Comms (@NDmbbSID) February 18, 2017
One can already see the fruits of his work. Beachem’s defense has improved markedly since his early days with the Irish. He’s become a strong wing defender, shot-blocker and, most importantly, a top scorer. Notre Dame’s equal-opportunity offense focuses on ball movement and finding the open man. The emergence of point guard Matt Farrell and All-America candidate Bonzie Colson has taken some weight off of Beachem’s shoulders. But, as Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports’ College Basketball Insider notes, there’s still cause for concern. While Beachem has been great down the stretch, Rothstein says that he “doesn’t play well if he doesn’t start the game heavily involved.” Because of that, Brey typically runs some designed plays for Beachem early in the game. “I can be more aggressive,” Beachem admits. “But fans have to understand our offense and our flow. We don’t force anything through one guy.”
Balance is certainly important, but when it matters most, every team needs one scorer who can be counted on to will his squad to victory. For past Irish teams, Grant, Ben Hansbrough, and Luke Harangody were the guys. National champions turned NBA stars Kemba Walker (UConn) and Carmelo Anthony (Syracuse) have proven how far one clutch scorer can take a team in March. The Irish are praying that Beachem can shoot them into the final game.