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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.”
Every home game at The Center, Brett Brown is scheduled to meet with reporters an hour and 45 minutes before tip-off.
Thursday, the fourth-year head coach was a little bit late for his 5:15 PM appointment, but it was hard to begrudge his tardiness. Brown’s parents, Bob and Bonny, were in town, and he offered to serve as their chauffeur to the arena.
The only problem was that a torrential downpour hit the Delaware Valley just as the Browns were getting ready make their trek to the Sports Complex. Hence the delay.
Bob, a New England Basketball Hall of Famer, is no stranger to visiting Philadelphia, passing through every now and then in-season. He occasionally sits in on practice sessions, and, over the years, has become a familiar, friendly face at Sixers’ training camp.
In discussing the dynamic that exists between him and his father, Bret Brown said Thursday that Bob isn’t the type to inundate him with unsolicited advice.
“He goes the complete other way of leaving me alone.”
But once in a while, the urge to talk shop with his 56-year old son grows too strong to resist.
For example, Brett recalled his dad recently mentioning, “‘Dario [Saric] has got to get more air to his shot, he’s got to get more legs, he’s got to push the ball up, he’s shooting darts, it’s too flat.’”
After making Sixers-related remarks such as these, Bob, according to Brett, typically expresses remorse. The elder Brown aims not to overstep his bounds.
“He just wants to let me coach, and leave me alone,” said Brett Brown. “He feels like there’s a lot going on here over my time here, and it’s true. But I feel like he has something, he’s usually spot on. It’s just delivered very, very infrequently.”
During a career that spanned five-plus decades, Bob Brown won nearly 500 games at the Maine high school level, and had two college head coaching opportunities as well. Brett said both of his parents, Bob and Bonny alike, enjoy the NBA game.
“My mom is addicted,” said Brown. “My mom watches more than dad. The best Christmas gift I give them is League Pass.”
The comment drew some laughter from the assembled press.
“It’s true,” Brown said. “Mom’s a coach’s wife. Her whole life, she’s been a coach’s wife, and dad’s been a coach for 55 years. It gives him a new angle of excitement, sometimes misery, and it’s good.”
Growing up in South Portland, Brett followed the Boston Celtics feverishly, learning the names of players whom Bob admired, and studying statistics. Of course, Brett was also emotionally invested in Bob’s own teams, several of which won state championships.
“You’d get so nervous for the games,” Brown said, remembering his youth. “My grandfather gave me a silver dollar, he called it a lucky silver dollar. All the time, you’re rubbing the hell out of that silver dollar at the game. You got tricked into thinking it had something to do with winning or losing. It’s just those memories with him growing up are strong.”
Brown’s parents plan to stay in Philadelphia through the weekend, before heading back to Maine. They now spend portions of their winter where the weather is warmer.
“He’s a proud Mainer, a Mainiac, and he loves snow,” Brown said of his dad. “Mom doesn’t, and so he sucks it up, and goes to Florida for three months.”
Those plans, combined with the Sixers’ current four-game homestand, offered son and father their latest opportunity to bond over a sport that has enriched each of their lives a great deal.
Saric Leads Breakfast
Throughout the season, the Sixers conduct a series of team breakfasts, for which Brett Brown tasks players with researching and presenting specific discussion topics.
In these particular settings, Brown feels the diverse nature of the Sixers’ roster, fueled by an influx of international players this year, shines. Broader global perspectives, he has found, expands the scope of the subject matter delivered at the meals.
Wednesday, on what marked an off-day for the Sixers, it was Dario Saric who served as the lead speaker for the team’s final breakfast meeting this season.
“You would have been blown away at listening to Dario talk about the Serb-Croatia War, and the impact it had on basketball,” Brown said.
Saric was born in Croatia, and got his start in professional basketball there.
The Serb-Croatian War was fought in the early 1990s, ultimately resulting in Croatia’s independence. One of the fallouts from the battle was that a territory previously united by basketball became divided.
“To talk about the Serbs, and the Croatians, and the Bosnians… the history, remnants of the war are real,” said Brown. “It’s not that long ago. How does that work? And you see Dario explain it all. It’s just a powerful thing.”
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