KANSAS CITY, MO – Since scrapping his way into the NBA as an undrafted free agent, T.J. McConnell has been a constant in the 76ers’ rotation. Over the past two seasons, no person has played in more games for Brett Brown than McConnell, with his 162.
Only two Sixers, Robert Covington and Nik Stauskas, have accumulated more minutes than the resilient point guard, and not by much.
This fall, in his third training camp as a pro, McConnell is embracing a new role as a reliable reserve. But by all accounts, his importance to the Sixers remains as integral as ever. Simply take Wednesday’s performance, and Brown’s subsequent summation of it, as a perfect case in point.
In the early stages of their pairing with Brooklyn at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the Sixers were out of sorts, falling behind by 10 points midway through the first quarter. In comes McConnell, and the lay of the land shifts, quickly and dramatically for that matter.
Within 42 seconds, McConnell, almost always pass-first in respect to his offensive approach, scored twice, first on a 7-foot jumper in the lane, then a 10-foot pull-up. The fuse was lit, and by the time the period had come to a close, McConnell had scored a third basket, and the Sixers were in front, 30-22.
The spurt was just the beginning of an explosive blitz that saw the squad break open Wednesday’s game to the tune of a 26-point lead before the end of the half. Who knows whether the turnaround would have happened without the feisty 25-year old’s efforts.
McConnell’s night ended with 10 points (4-8 fg), 4 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals, all pre-season highs. He logged nearly 20 minutes of action, backing up 2016 No.1 pick Ben Simmons, factoring perhaps even more substantially into the Sixers’ game plan given that 2017 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz was sidelined.
The contributions that McConnell made, and the signature spirit he brought to the game, only reinforced to Brown a long-held belief: the undrafted Arizona product needs to be on the floor for the Sixers, someway, somehow.
“He’s lived an erratic pre-season,” Brown noted, referring to Simmons, Fultz, sometimes Jerryd Bayless, and McConnell all splitting lead guard reps, at times. “That was our starting point guard last year, so it’s a very different role.”
Brown, however, particularly in the aftermath of the first two tilts on the Sixers’ current three-game pre-season road trip, which ends Friday in Kansas City against the Miami Heat (8:30 PM EST; NBC Sports Philadelphia, 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network), has admired how McConnell manages to get the most out of his opportunities.
“He still finds a way to be the competitive person that he is, and the teammate that he is,” Brown said Thursday, following the Sixers’ practice at the University of Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse.
McConnell’s mindset has been a simple one, very on-brand for the blue collar workhorse to whom the city of Philadelphia has gravitated during his tenure in town.
“Just doing whatever the team needs me to do, whether that’s play two minutes or 20 minutes,” said McConnell after Thursday’s workout. “I’m just trying to go out there and make a difference. If that’s taking advantage of minutes, then I guess I’ve tried to do that.”
About a week before the start of training camp, Brown forecasted that McConnell, even with Simmons and Fultz in the fold this season, would “draw a line in the sand,” and stake his claim for a spot in the backcourt stable. It was the exact same prediction Brown made at the same time the previous year.
The head coach was right then, and he appears to be right again. McConnell hasn’t gone away.
“You’re reminded of how important he is,” said Brown. “He finds ways to win. You want to talk about willing your way into a game, willing your way to success. He’s defied all odds. Nobody ever gave him a chance. Yet here he is, he doesn’t go away. He just ticks so much the way I want our players to tick, and he’s a great example for our young guys.”
Imagine that. In no time at all, it feels like, McConnell, just two years removed from being an under-the-radar prospect, no longer being viewed as one of the Sixers’ “young guys.” And, despite his relative youth, he probably shouldn’t be. His work ethic, production, and the ultra-competitive gene that Brown referenced command respect.
“I like to talk trash, a lot of trash, especially in practice,” said Joel Embiid. “That’s like the only guy who goes back at me.”
The picture Embiid paints offers quite the juxtaposition. 6-foot-2, 200-pound point guard not retreating from 7-foot, 260-pound behemoth.
If you’ve followed McConnell the past two seasons, his determination should come as no surprise.
“I love his attitude, and on the court, he’s great to play with,” Embiid said Thursday. “You can look at what he did last year, especially when he got introduced to the starting line up, and that’s when we started winning. I think he impacts winning, and defensively he’s great, picking up the point guard full court. He’s just a great guy to be around. I love him.”
After posting nearly 26.5 minutes per game a season ago, McConnell has averaged about 16 minutes per game in the preseason. He said he and Brown haven’t talked much about his role for this year, other than Brown encouraging McConnell to “do what got you here, run the team, and be a coach on the floor.”
“You kind of see how the game’s flowing when you’re coming off the bench, it gives you a different outlook on things,” said McConnell. “I obviously don’t mind coming off the bench. I think it’s a good role for me. When I come in, no matter who I’m with, just try to go out there and make my teammates better.”
The numbers suggest that so far, his presence has been a positive one. McConnell has generated a plus-7.2 net rating. He continues to be a source of pace, defensive pressure, and energy.
Getting McConnell to speak in praiseworthy, complimentary fashion about his own game is no easy task. More than anything, he seems to appreciate the support he’s received throughout the Sixers’ organization, especially from Brown.
“Whether people believe it or don’t believe it, I think all that matters is if the guy you’re playing for believes it, and yourself. You just got to keep going out there, working hard, and doing what the coaching staff tells you. That’s all you can really do.”
McConnell has lived his words, and the minutes continue to come around.