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TJ McConnell’s Unlikely Path to NBA Success

April 12th, 2016 News No Comments

Ivy Hunt-Ashram

In February of 2015, I sent a text message to an NBA scout asking a very direct question:

“Can McConnell play in the NBA?”

The response was equally direct, if not more so:

“No way.”

Fast forward 10 months, and that scout had a few more words to offer:

“I was wrong about McConnell.”

After going undrafted, McConnell set the basketball world on fire by stepping into an injury ravaged Philadelphia 76er’s rotation and absolutely killing it.

With both of Philadelphia’s point guards sidelined, McConnell made the most of his increased opportunity and averaged 6.4 assists per game throughout the month of November. Most impressively, he averaged just 2.8 turnovers during that span, a throwback to the excellent decision making and steady ball handling he displayed at Arizona.

After being virtually off the radar, McConnell had one of the most successful starts to the NBA season of any rookie in the league. He was flirting with triple doubles, averaging a hearty 5.1 rebounds from the point guard position during November. In fact, he made NBA history by logging two games of 12 assists in his first four games.

Of course, as the season went on McConnell’s minutes dipped when Philadelphia’s injured players returned. After averaging over 27 minutes in Novemeber, that number dipped to 17 in December.

But McConnell continued to do the same things that made him successful at Arizona, and carved out a role despite limited minutes. During February McConnell played just 16 minutes per game, but averaged 4.9 assists and 1.7 steals. In spite of some erratic rotations throughout the season, McConnell is averaging 5.8 assists per game through five April games and appears to be playing his best basketball of the season.

From being an underclassman at Duquesne, to 67 wins at Arizona, to the Philadelphia 76er’s locker room, McConnell’s road has been a unique one. But at each stage of his career, McConnell has made the most of his opportunities.

That helps explain how McConnell has averaged over 11 points, 8 assists, and 5 rebounds per 36 minutes for Philadelphia despite getting little to no interest from NBA teams during the draft. Or how a player that everyone overlooked can be 8th in the NBA in assist percentage (ahead of Lebron James and Steph Curry) and 7th in steal percentage (ahead of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George).

As the NBA season comes to a close, the numbers speak for themselves. McConnell averaged the 2nd most assists out of all rookies with 4.5 dimes in 19.8 minutes per game. Emmanuel Mudiay, the 5th pick in the draft, was the only player ahead of him with 5.5 assists in over 30 minutes per game. Mudiay averaged over 3 turnovers to McConnell’s 1.7 per game.

McConnell also finished 2nd among rookies in steals with 1.2 thefts per game. Fellow ex-Wildcat Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s rookie best 1.4 steals per game was the only mark to eclipse McConnell’s.

The play-making and gritty defense that made McConnell a star at Arizona has carried over, making him an asset in the professional game. Not bad for a player with “no way” of playing in the NBA.

With Philadelphia long since out of the playoff picture, McConnell has been able to gain more traction as the 76er’s front office focuses more on developing their young talent. That bodes very well for his future with the organization, as McConnell is poised to continue defying his expectations.

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