T.J. McConnell is made for Philadelphia. He was signed by the Sixers in September of 2015 as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Arizona. At Arizona, the third year pro averaged 10.4 points per game and 6.3 assists in his senior season. Good numbers for sure, but the so-called “experts” said his game couldn’t translate.
But McConnell has proved all of his naysayers wrong. He has the demeanor of Chase Utley, but with far less skill. He’s missed two games in two years, the first player to the floor — sometimes the only player, and the guy who’ll do whatever is asked. He isn’t afraid to mix it up with the big boys — in fact — he has to. That’s the only way he’s survived, and thrived, and long as he has.
Leave it to McConnell, but his presence on the court alone translates to the NBA, let alone his game. But it was his game that made the biggest leap last season. The Pittsburgh native averaged 6.6 assists a game, making 51 starts for the team and a cool 7-1 when the scrappy guard started with Joel Embiid in the lineup. He became an instant folk hero when the point guard drained a turn-around jumper at the buzzer in the face on Knicks’ star Carmelo Anthony. He then hit another a go-ahead jumper against the Magic later in the season to secure another Sixers’ win.
With Ben Simmons breaking his foot in training camp, Jerryd Bayless limited to three games due to a wrist injury, and Sergio Rodriguez getting injured towards the end of December, all Brett Brown had left was McConnell, and boy, did he deliver.
This season figures to be different, however. Simmons and Bayless, both point guards, should be back to full health and ready for the season opener. The Sixers’ number one overall pick Markelle Fultz is also a listed as a point guard. That’s three, with McConnell as the fourth option.
Does that mean McConnell will be a regular ‘DNP Coach’s Decision?’
Short answer: no, not by a long shot. Luckily for Brett Brown and the Sixers, Simmons, Bayless, and Fultz aren’t your prototypical, true point guards. A 6-10 Simmons may fit the point guard billing more than Bayless and Fultz because of his pass first approach, but he’s 6-10. The former LSU standout may be asked to play some forward at times, especially if Embiid is unavailable. Both Bayless and Fultz are good enough shooters to where they can play off the ball. Each player shot over 40 percent from three in their last full season as a pro and college, respectively.
Because the guards are so versatile, T.J. McConnell will have a role on this team. He won’t start, and his minutes will be decrease significantly from last season, but he’ll play a part. McConnell will be in a rotation of guards consisting of Simmons, Fultz, Bayless, Redick, and Stauskus bringing up the rear. McConnell is perhaps the best defender of the bunch, which automatically will get him time. Though the point guard is just 25, the Sixers need his type of leadership out on the court — someone that knows how to run a team as a floor general. Brett Brown doesn’t take those intangibles for granted. Who knows… For a big defensive stop, Brown can trot out a lineup of McConnell-Simmons-Covington-Saric-Embiid. That’s likely the Sixers’ best defensive lineup, with Simmons, Covington, and Saric all able to guard multiple positions.
Whether it’s two minutes, 12 minutes (approximate expected playing time), or 2o minutes, T.J. McConnell and his big heart will be the court and serve a massively important purpose. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports