The whirlwind NBA offseason has slowed to a calm breeze, with Nerlens Noel’s free agency and a possible Carmelo Anthony trade being the two major storylines remaining. Here at The Longest View, we plan to continue producing content during the dog days of Summer despite the dearth of relevant Sixers news.
With an eye on the upcoming season, I will be profiling as many Sixers as possible. Where else to start but Timothy John McConnell?
God wants T.J. McConnell to play in the NBA. As an undrafted prospect from Arizona, he somehow found a roster spot and playing time on Sam Hinkie’s Process Sixers. As a second-year player, injuries to first overall pick Ben Simmons and veteran addition Jerryd Bayless allowed McConnell to retain his role as backup point guard. In early January, then-starter Sergio Rodriguez missed time with an ankle injury. McConnell assumed a spot in the starting lineup and never relinquished it.
The addition of McConnell to the starting lineup coincided with Philadelphia’s surprising January winning streak. The team posted a 10-5 record that month with McConnell at the helm. His play convinced head coach Brett Brown to keep him in the starting lineup upon Rodriguez’s return, and McConnell even drew trade interest from the Cavaliers before the trade deadline.
T.J. averaged 8.6 points and 7.7 assists per game as a starter, proving that he belongs in an NBA rotation. In an article by Alex Kennedy of HoopsHype on July 8, an anonymous Eastern Conference center named McConnell as the most underrated player in the NBA: “The most underrated player in the NBA is T.J. McConnell from the Sixers. If you just look at his stats, they’re never going to jump out at you, but that little f***er is tough. He’s a tough kid. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll just screen this little white boy and lay him out,’ but he fights through every screen. He’s gritty and he doesn’t back down from anyone. It’s hard being a point guard in today’s NBA because you’re going against a star most nights, but he holds his own. He demands respect every single night. If you don’t respect him entering the game, you’ll respect him by the second half.”
Despite his breakout season and newfound league-wide respect, McConnell’s role for the 2017-18 Sixers is still in question. Simmons and Bayless are expected to join the rotation, and another point guard, 2017 top pick Markelle Fultz, has entered the fold. Suddenly, McConnell could be on the outside looking in when it comes to playing time.
Fultz and Simmons will start. Even if McConnell somehow outplays them in training camp, the development of the two first overall picks is too important for Brett Brown to start McConnell over either one. McConnell will earn his playing time by competing with Bayless for backup minutes.
If I were McConnell, I would spend the entire summer practicing catch-and-shoot three pointers. McConnell shot 20% from three last season, and Simmons was unwilling to shoot threes during his lone season at LSU. One of them must become passable in order for the two to coexist on offense. If McConnell cannot make a drastic improvement from behind the arc, Bayless and his 43.7% three point shooting (2015-16) could nail McConnell to the bench.
Theoretically, McConnell and Fultz could play together with Fultz as the shooting guard. However, Brett Brown will likely want to give Fultz reps as the lead ball handler when Simmons is off the court. The more I look at the Sixers’ roster, the much celebrated trade to acquire Fultz looks like beginning of the end for McConnell in Philadelphia.
McConnell’s situation reminds me of Nerlens Noel’s entering last season. Nerlens had great moments in Philadelphia (the block on James Harden, a bunch of alley-oops) and was a productive player with promising upside. Last season, T.J. became one of the most underrated players in the league, had a 17-assist game against the Celtics, and nailed a game-winning buzzer beater over Carmelo Anthony to beat the Knicks. That shot produced arguably the two most iconic photos of the Sixers’ season: McConnell’s leaping fist pump and Joel Embiid choking McConnell in a frenzy of joy.
Ultimately, however, Noel could never find the playing time he deserved in Philadelphia, where he was embroiled in a constant battle for minutes with Embiid and Jahlil Okafor. He was shipped to Dallas at the trade deadline, where he is expected to start at center next season. If McConnell fails to emerge from the glut of point guards this year, he could suffer the same fate, or be granted the same opportunity, depending on how you look at it.
As a Sixers fan, I want to make more memories with T.J. I hope the last time I watch him steal the inbounds pass after a made basket will not come this season. I pray that T.J. shows up at training camp with an improved jump shot and forces Brett Brown to play him over Bayless.
Sometimes, though, when you love someone, you have to set them free. The Sixers set Nerlens free, and now he is running wild in Dallas with Dennis Smith Jr. I am prepared to set T.J. McConnell free, but only if I have to.
Earlier, I wrote that God wants T.J. McConnell to play in the NBA. That is only half of the truth. T.J. McConnell also wants T.J. McConnell to play in the NBA. 6’2 white guys who can’t jump or even shoot do not become NBA starting point guard without serious work ethic and toughness. I trust T.J. to grind his way into some playing time next season. If he plays his way into a lucrative contract from another team in free agency, I’ll feel like a proud father. However, I’d rather watch him celebrate a championship in Philadelphia. Keep working, T.J. Love you.