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McConnell’s Production, Assertiveness Grow in Second Season
Turn back the clock about six months, and all signs indicated that, to a certain degree, T.J. McConnell was facing an uphill challenge in terms of cracking the Sixers’ point guard rotation.
Sure, the steely, relentless Pittsburgh native was coming off an eye-opening debut campaign, one in which he clawed his way to an opening night roster spot, and never let it go, finishing among the NBA’s top 10 in both assist and steal percentages. Also impressive about McConnell’s first season was that, as a rookie, he proved durable enough to lead the Sixers with 81 games played.
Heading into training camp, however, substantial minutes in 2016-2017 appeared to be anything but a sure thing for McConnell. The Sixers signed veteran Jerryd Bayless in July, with the initial intention of him running the first-stringers. Also over the summer, the club inked Sergio Rodriguez, an innovative, crafty facilitator coming off a six-year stint in Spain that saw him blossom into a star.
Freshly-minted number one pick Ben Simmons was in the mix as well, and seemed to be in line for some lead ball-handling reps, too.
None of these acquisitions discouraged McConnell. He proceeded to go about his business much like he did in his first year, putting his head down, working hard, and being ready to contribute when called upon.
As it turned out, opportunities would soon emerge.
First, there was Simmons’ right foot fracture, then the pesky soreness in Bayless’ left wrist. Both injuries came early in training camp, resulting in McConnell beginning the season as Rodriguez’s back-up. Two months later, Rodriguez was on the shelf for a week after spraining his left ankle, and McConnell moved into the starting line-up.
The Sixers, of course, went on to win their next two games, and nine of their first 12 contests with McConnell in charge of the top group. The spark he created, the order he established, the toughness he demanded were factors that couldn’t be ignored.
Whether by the number of victories he’s been part of as a starter (21 of the Sixers’ 28), or some of the heady statistics he’s put up this season, there are plenty of means available to measure McConnell’s positive impact.
As of Friday morning, the recently-turned 25-year old placed first among all NBA players in passes per game (68.9), and 13th overall in assists per game (6.5). The only other player ranked higher than McConnell on the league’s assist chart, while also averaging fewer than 30.0 minutes per game, was four-time All-Star Rajon Rondo (6.7).
Since claiming the Sixers’ starting point guard reigns in late December, McConnell has become an even more productive distributor. His 7.7 assists per game during this stretch are good for eighth-best in the league, ahead of perennial All-NBA candidates Steph Curry and Kyle Lowry.
Furthermore, McConnell has generated the NBA’s seventh-best assist percentage (37.0) among players who have logged at least 55 games. His 127 total steals tie him for ninth in the league with teammate Robert Covington.
As commendable as all of these achievements are, they take on a whole different meaning when accounting for the fact that McConnell went undrafted in 2015. From a facilitating standpoint, his output exceeds by a noteworthy margin that of his second-year point guard peers, such as D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay, two top 10 selections from McConnell’s rookie class.
Evaluating McConnell’s second season, Brett Brown has perhaps been most pleased by the growing sense of command that the Arizona product has brought to the court. According to Brown, McConnell, with nearly 160 NBA outings now under his belt, has been increasingly willing to assert himself in giving directions to teammates, and providing the coaching staff with feedback.
These interjections, Brown said, come in the form of McConnell saying things like, “‘Hey, you better go there,” or his proactiveness to tell Brown, “‘I don’t think we should be doing that because they’re switching, [so] we should be doing this.’”
“I’m like, ‘Good call,’” said Brown. “I like it.”
Call it confidence, call it empowerment, call it the accumulation of Sixers’ corporate knowledge. Brown has seen a significant, perhaps necessary, shift in mindset.
“It’s his ability to not just feel like, ‘I’m so lucky to be in the NBA, isn’t this wonderful,’ to, ‘I belong, here I am, and I’m going to grab this opportunity and be a legitimate point guard, a leader like I was in Arizona,’” Brown said Thursday.
“I think I see the emergence of that confidence, born a lot out of just the knowledge he feels he’s gaining the more he’s in the league.”
Check back later for additional updates to this edition of the Notebook.
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