T.J. McConnel has one of the league’s best come-up stories and is continuing his basketball career right where he should be — with the Indiana Pacers.
For the longest time, until the Indiana Pacers signed him this summer, T.J. McConnell was given no guarantees in the NBA. He led the Arizona Wildcats to relative success, but it wasn’t enough to secure a reputation of a player that would truly stick in the league when he entered the NBA Draft.
His size underwhelmed. He didn’t look the part of a typically successful NBA player. Maybe more like a ballboy, some thought. As a result, McConnell went undrafted.
In fact, after one of his wins as a Sixer, he was asked to pay a cover at XFinity Live!, the sports bar that lives in the same complex as the Wells Fargo Center where the Sixers play their home games. It simply wasn’t believable that he might have been on the pro sports team that just played a game.
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Being denied entry is standard for McConnell. He wasn’t initially invited to the draft combine. He wasn’t invited to the NBA Draft green room. He wasn’t selected in the first round of the draft. Then he wasn’t selected in the second.
For a general manager like Sam Hinkie, McConnell was the prime candidate for what would become known as a “Hinkie special”, a non-guaranteed contract that was on extremely team-friendly terms. It gave players the chance (and reason) to prove their worth and the team a path to keep their books open with little to no commitment. It also allowed a tanking team like the Sixers to take fliers on hungry players on the off-chance they might turn into something special.
These arrangements are anxiety-inducing for players and often avoided by agents. The team can cut the tie at any time and leave the player with nowhere to go until January 10th of each season when contracts become guaranteed for the year.
Players run from these. This arrangement was perfect for McConnell.
All he needed was an opportunity to display what he could do. While his ceiling seemed quite low, McConnell made it to January 10th in his first year. Then, against all odds, he made the final roster in his sophomore season in part due to luck — Jerryd Bayless was injured to start the year.
Somehow, someway, he clawed his way to January 10th for a second season. Then a third, even with Ben Simmons manning starting point guard duties. Then a fourth.
The Process era Sixers were marred with injuries. In some ways, McConnell’s standout ability was simply his availability. He played in 314 games for Philadelphia since 2015, the next most present player being Robert Covington at 227 games. While the backcourt was a revolving door of temporary fixes as the team waited for Ben Simmons to be healthy enough to play, McConnell was the one constant and was also the person to declare that “The Process” in Philadelphia was over.
When he got his shot, though, McConnell made sure to not let it slip away.
Without the build or size to physically impose his will on defense, he hounded with quickness and a nagging pressure. He picked guards up full-court to limit the amount of time they had to work within the half-court where McConnell would be further disadvantaged fighting over screens.
McConnell is never going to light up the stat sheet in the way some guards might. He is disadvantaged in many ways, and his offensive game is predicated on setting his teammates up for scores more than his own shine.
You can’t count him out, though. McConnell might meander his way below the hoop, eyes set on a teammate in the corner that defenders assume he might pass to. Head below the backboard, no way he can get a shot up. And then, an impossible scoop of the hand and the ball is up and in.
McConnell is a pest. He’s putting up more points, rebounds, and assists per 36 minutes than ever before in his career this season and has vastly improved his free-throw percentage, a display of what might be able to come for his offensive game in the future.
McConnell’s spirit is unrelenting, and his playstyle mirrors that. Indiana has him for the remainder of this year and all of next year, too, and looks to be a central part of what the Pacers are looking to build.
This is a good match for him. Competitive, pure basketball is what McConnell exudes, and his effort, physical limitations be what they are, will always be appreciated in Indiana.