He’s a coach’s kid, the son of a local legend in Pittsburgh, so of course T.J. McConnell is going to become a head coach’s pet project. Especially if that coach was a point guard himself.
Arizona fans remember McConnell and Sean Miller on the sidelines, dissecting a defense like Holmes and Watson. Two point guards in a pod.
Brett Brown, the Philadelphia 76ers coach since McConnell entered the league, might have named a son after him had they known each other earlier in life. That’s how much Brown loves McConnell. He called McConnell an extension of himself on the court.
But neither Miller nor Brown, nor probably even Tim McConnell, T.J.’s own father, has called McConnell what his new coach — Indiana Pacers head man Nate McMillan, himself an NBA point guard for a dozen years — called him after a recent game.
“A guy like that is sunshine,” McMillan said. “People like to play with him. They like to be with him.”
So how is T.J. McConnell fitting in around his new locker room?
Like sunshine, baby.
Flourishing in Philly
Do call him sunshine.
Do not call him a pest.
According to Malcolm Brogdon — another key offseason acquisition for the Pacers, the team’s starting point guard — McConnell is no mere irritant.
Asked what it was like to now be playing with a guy against whom he’d squared off for three seasons, a player known for being a nuisance throughout the league, the former Milwaukee Bucks guard and 2016-17 NBA Rookie of the Year insisted that McConnell is more than just feisty. He’s more than just his motor. Those are code words.
“He’s better than that,” Brogdon said. “A lot of people say just he’s a pest. He’s actually a really good basketball player. He’s a pro. He’s here for a reason. He can defend. He does a lot of things. Everybody loves playing with him.”
They joined the Pacers right around the same time, Brogdon via sign-and-trade on June 30, McConnell arriving just a few days later via free agency, leaving the only NBA home he’s ever known.
The Pittsburgh kid had arrived in Philadelphia in 2015 as an undrafted free agent after a terrific college career split between nearby Duquesne and the Arizona Wildcats. He’d starred for his hometown Dukes for two years, winning Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Year honors then a spot on the all-conference third team as a sophomore, but he wanted a bigger showcase, wanted to prove he could hang with the baddest in the land, so he transferred to Arizona, blossoming into the best point guard in the Pac-12 and into a Tucson icon.
Twenty-one straight wins to start his junior year, back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, all-conference nods. He kissed the floor at McKale Center, for heaven’s sake.
And as beloved as he became in Tucson, he was equally embraced in Philadelphia. He’d end up starting for the Sixers by the end of his rookie season, by all accounts a successful one for McConnell, even if the team won just 10 games. Caught smack in the middle of “The Process,” McConnell played a major role for Philadelphia in 2016-17 as No. 1 pick Ben Simmons sat out the season with a foot injury, then became a primary bench player the last two years, earning kudos from Brown for his ability to run an offense and for his tenacious defense.
NBA teams coveted McConnell. Rumors abounded that the Le-Bron James-led Cavaliers tried to pry him away before their playoff runs in his first few seasons.
But free agency was an entirely new thing for McConnell. The Sixers, it seemed, were pressed for money, and the Pacers came after him hard.
“I didn’t really know how free agency worked,” he said recently. “It’s a business, and unfortunately it doesn’t always work out. I wanted to go back to Philly, but I’m really happy where I’m at. I didn’t know anything else, so I was scared to go somewhere else. But being in this organization for the short time I have, I don’t think there’s a better fit. Unbelievable culture, unbelievable locker room, and that starts with the front office, the coaching staff and it trickles down to the players. I’m extremely happy and blessed to be here.”
The feeling is mutual.
Ingratiating and effective
It took McConnell all of five minutes this summer to make friends with his new Pacers family.
“He’s already established relationships with each guy on this team. Just that says a lot about him alone,” Indiana forward Doug McDermott said. “Constantly texting guys, going out for dinner with us, inviting guys over to his place with his wife and his dog, Zona. We’re constantly giving him crap — he’s a pretty easy target — but it keeps it fun.”
Winning helps, too.
The Pacers are 17-9, in sixth place a competitive Eastern Conference and only three games back of the second seed, the Sixers.
Brogdon, the team’s $85 million man, has been as advertised, leading the team with 19.5 points per game and a player efficiency rating of 22.27.
But look who ranks third on the team in the same category: McConnell.
Signing for less than Brogdon’s beaucoup bucks — two years for a reported $7 million — McConnell has been better than advertised. He’s averaging 6.4 points and 4.8 assists per game, good for 31st in the NBA, and his 16.19 PER puts him behind just Brogdon and power forward Domantas Sabonis, another big McConnell fan.
“He’s been great, from Day 1,” Sabonis said. “I really liked him — I played against him in college, and when he played for Philly, and I always thought he was a great backup point guard. I always saw him get people going. I remember sitting on the bench and telling my teammates, ‘We need this guy.’”
Forming a three-headed monster at point guard with Brogdon and another former Pac-12 star, UCLA’s Aaron Holiday, the Pacers have one of the best and brightest backcourts in the NBA, one that will only be bolstered by the return of superstar Victor Oladipo from a ruptured quadriceps tendon in the coming months.
McConnell’s minutes may be down — his 17.5 per game are the fewest in his NBA career — but his PER is at a career high, and his role is defined. He had 11 assists and six points on 3-for-3 shooting in a recent 104-103 win over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, and he’s scored in double-figures five times already this year.
“That’s been the narrative all four years for me: How much am I going to play?” he said. “My mission in Philly, and hopefully here for a long time, was to work my butt off and put myself in the conversation. How can’t we have this guy on the floor? Bringing tons of energy, doing things the right way, running a team — that will be what I do for the rest of my career. I’m a pretty self-aware person. I’m not going to be a guy who breaks the bank. I’m obviously not a max-level guy.
“But there’s a saying — all you need is one team to like you.”
McConnell doesn’t get it.
Teams don’t like him. They love him.
“Heart on his sleeve”
If it took McConnell all of five minutes to fit in with his new team, it took all of five seconds to feel the love from his old one. The Pacers played in Philadelphia on Nov. 30.
McConnell arrived in the locker room to find a framed 76ers jersey and a note from general manager Elton Brand thanking him for his time there.
When McConnell checked in with 6:48 left in his first game back in his old haunt, the Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers showed a long highlight video and the fans stood and cheered.
McConnell walked to the Philadelphia bench and embraced Brown, who wrapped his arms around him and kissed his shoulder before sending him back onto the court.
“He plays with his heart on his sleeve,” Brown said of McConnell that day. “This city loves him, he’s Pittsburgh, he’s hard, he’s all that. … It was deeper than he’s just a tremendous glue guy. He actually could play well and I think that we’re all going to see him in the NBA for many, many, many years. Personally, I will look back and be very proud of him for his journey. I have a fondness for that man because of the history that we all spent here in Philadelphia and what we endured together, and what he persevered to find — now seemingly an NBA career.”
“Beyond Lucky to have her”
When they packed up and moved to Indiana in early July, McConnell knew what he was doing to his wife and longtime love, Valerie.
“This topic gets lost in the shuffle, our spouses,” he said. “We had a lot of friends in Philly. My wife had a lot of friends there — people she’ll call friends the rest of her life — and she’s asked to pick up and move to a city and state she’s never been to. No friends. Maybe one friend. It’s incredibly tough, and that’s why I admire and love and respect in every way my wife. That’s how I feel. I’m beyond lucky to have her. She’s my rock. She’s for me when I’m playing bad, when I’m playing great. She’s been unbelievable through this whole process.”
It’s not easy, leaving the only home you’ve ever known together.
McConnell did it once, leaving Duquesne for Arizona, trading Pittsburgh’s coal for Tucson’s cacti.
He needed to do it in order to grow.
Now, McConnell’s done it again. He’s left the familiar for the foreign, even if Indiana is about as America as it gets.
Will he be embraced like he was in Philadelphia?
His teammates think so.
“I think he’s a guy Indiana fans will really rally around,” McDermott said. “He’s diving on the floor, getting after it. They love guys who play that way. It’s kind of the ‘Hoosiers’ mentality. He fits that mold exactly. He’d look good in a Hickory jersey for sure.”
McConnell’s teammates knew what they were getting when he arrived from Philadelphia, and he’s already made an instant impact.
Now he’s hoping to leave a lasting impression.
“Once I’m done, ‘I’ll be able to say what the hell did I just do?’” he said. “That first year (with the 76ers), my head was kind of spinning. I was just kind of soaking everything in.
“But I think I’ve earned the right to be where I am now. Once I’m done, I think I’ll look back with no regrets.
“I know the ball is going to stop bouncing at one point. If you’re viewed by how you treated people, and seen in a positive light, you can walk away knowing you did what was right.”
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