A few years ago, my sister and I had discussions about TJ McConnell. Philadelphia won 10 games McConnell’s rookie year, and it’s not like McConnell impressed that much. Sam Hinkie never addressed the point guard position heading into that season, opting for cheap options like Pierre Jackson, McConnell and Kendall Marshall. Marshall was the presumed starter, but that never really came to fruition due to his ACL injury suffered in Milwaukee. Philadelphia eventually traded for Ish Smith, preventing Philadelphia from being the worst team in the history of basketball. McConnell had some moments, but it became evident he only made a NBA roster because the 76ers wanted to lose games. During NBA Summer League, following his rookie year, is really when those discussions about McConnell began. We both agreed he needed to be better if he had any hopes of making the NBA his career. Neither of us, though, expected him to be this good.
The 2014 Draft Class had more hype than the 2015 one. But still, June of 2015 many NBA franchises expected their trajectory to alter with the addition of a Jahlil Okafor or D’Angelo Russell. Philadelphia was definitely one of those teams hoping for the cornerstone to assure Hinkie’s plan. Sixty players were drafted, but only one of those players had a playoff game like the undrafted McConnell did Monday night. It just so happened to be the player McConnell helped hold to a 4-of-11 performance Monday: Terry Rozier.
McConnell’s most impressive moment, before Monday night, happened on a brisk January 2017 night. Philadelphia trailed by several points against the New York Knicks. Joel Embiid began the comeback with a three-point play against Joakim Noah (remember him?). The Knicks missed a chance to ice the game, which led to a game-winning, spinning jumper from McConnell. Then the Pittsburgh kid ran to the other end of the court, fist pumping in mid-air like Michael Jordan once did. Embiid even made his Twitter avatar picture a side-by-side frame of the two iconic photos. McConnell’s role, as Philadelphia drafted young, guard talent, appeared to be set to diminish this season. Markelle Fultz would take over as back-up point guard, leaving McConnell to play limited minutes. That was in October and November. But the problem was, Fultz couldn’t play, so McConnell’s number continued to be called.
In February, Philadelphia added Marco Belinelli, and then a little ways later Fultz returned. (McConnell did mess around and get a triple-double against his favorite opponent, the Knicks, in February). It appeared McConnell was slowly losing his place in the rotation. McConnell averaged about 7 points and 5 assists per game from October through January. In March, however, he averaged only 3.9 points and 2.9 assists per game. With the writing on the wall, McConnell turned into a supportive teammate, telling the media he’ll be Fultz’s biggest fan come the postseason. Miami pressured the hell out of Fultz to kick off the First Round, leading head coach Brett Brown to lean on McConnell to back-up Simmons. McConnell responded just like always. It’s no surprise that, in a do or die scenario, Brown started McConnell Monday night, and did McConnell ever save the season?
19 points, seven rebounds and five assists in a playoff game for an undrafted player is rare. McConnell joins John Starks and Avery Johnson as the only undrafted guards in NBA history with those numbers in a playoff game. Not only did McConnell excel in energizing a lifeless Philadelphia offense, but his defense on Rozier was essential to the win. Rozier has been dynamic all playoffs long. Robert Covington struggled to stay in front of him, leaving the Louisville guard open for three time and time again earlier in the series. Rozier, however, never got into a rhythm as McConnell used his quickness to stick with him.
McConnell will start again Wednesday. Philadelphia needs a secondary ball handler because of how effective Boston’s defense has been all season, and especially this series. It’s easy to enjoy McConnell play basketball, from the times he dives on the floor for loose balls to his patented little jump floater from eight feet away. Sure, Hinkie and Brown gave him an opportunity. But McConnell made the most of it. Has he ever.