The Philadelphia 76ers had a three game losing streak snapped the other day against the Washington Wizards, although Joel Embiid didn’t play. In the team’s last sixteen games, they’re 9-7 after a win against the Milwaukee Bucks. The Sixers have looked like a real NBA team in that stretch, being able to hold their own against even some of the league’s best teams. At times during The Process, the Sixers looked like the Keystone Cops and resembled a local rec team not one made up of professionals making millions. While the obvious explanation of the recent success is the budding superstar Embiid, there’s a more subtle answer that has made his contributions felt and that’s point guard T.J. McConnell.
T.J. McConnell is in his second season in the NBA, both with the Philadelphia Sixers after going undrafted out of the University of Arizona. Many people were shocked when McConnell got a roster spot. The Pittsburgh native is undersized, listed as six foot two but he’s probably closer to six feet tall. He lacks explosiveness and speed in general. But for what McConnell lacks physically, he makes it up with an above average basketball IQ. Point guards are often referred to as “floor generals,” and he’s best when running the offense.
McConnell was thrust into the starting lineup as injuries mounted. The top overall pick, Ben Simmons has yet to play a game after breaking a bone in his foot in October, but it looks like his return is nearing. Jerryd Bayless, who got injured in a preseason game, finally returned at the end of November. But after only appearing in three games, the team announced his wrist injury would keep him from playing all year. That leaves just two point guards on the roster, McConnell and the former European point guard, Sergio Rodriguez. That was until Rodriguez tweaked his hamstring two weeks ago. The Sixers have since signed Chasson Randle to a ten-day contract.
In McConnell’s first NBA start, on December 11, 2016, he led the Sixers to a 97-79 victory over the Detroit Pistons. In that game, he finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists. He should’ve had that elusive tenth assist but Robert Covington missed an uncontested layup in the waning seconds. Two and a half weeks later, during his next start the Sixers narrowly escaped with a 124-122 win in Denver against the Nuggets.
Unlike the Sixers over the previous three seasons, this roster has remained relatively unchanged throughout the year. That consistency has fostered team camaraderie and built a level of trust on the court.
In the 9 games T.J. McConnell has started, Philly has come away victorious in 6 of them for a .667 win percentage. In those games, he’s averaging 8 points and 7 assists. Over the course of the whole season he’s only recording 5 points and 5 rebounds a game. His numbers don’t jump off the page by any means; in fact, they look meager at best for a starter.
T.J. McConnell’s is not the prototypical point guard in the NBA anymore. Top point guards in the league rely on their basketball skill and their athletic ability, but McConnell doesn’t have the athleticism of the average point guard. Kyrie Irving can beat a defender with some of the best ball skills in the league, McConnell can’t. Steph Curry can make a shot from anywhere on the court, McConnell can’t. Russell Westbrook will beat defenders with his speed, McConnell can’t. But he can run the offense.
McConnell will not be a starting point guard on a championship caliber NBA team. He’s not elite, but T.J. McConnell has proven that he belongs in the NBA. The University of Arizona product is under contract in Philadelphia for the next three seasons, and hopefully he’ll get some playoff experience in that time. McConnell is thriving in his starting role and it’s earning him a long-term career as a backup.
Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports