One evening, during an off-night amidst the Sixers' preseason, Nerlens Noel's cellphone vibrated. It was a text from T.J. McConnell.
"We can be like Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire on the pick and roll," McConnell's message read, complete with a video of a patented alley oop from the Seven Seconds Or Less era. "He's always trying to learn something and watching film and then he sends it over to my phone," Noel said, "I like that about him."
Noel and McConnell couldn't be more different. After many projected him as the No. 1 overall pick, Noel was the sixth selection in the 2013 NBA Draft. McConnell, a star collegiate player but with no professional fanfare, went undrafted this June.
Noel stands at 6'11, with a freakish 7'4 wingspan and world-class athleticism harnessed in his springy legs. McConnell is just 6'2 and, while quick-footed, won't be mistaken for an Olympian anytime soon. Noel is considered a foundational player to the Sixers' polarizing rebuild, primed to sign a maximum contract when he hits restricted free agency. McConnell is working on a four-year, partially guaranteed minimum contract.
Somehow, the two have formed a close bond. It's an interesting dynamic: While Noel is already entering his third season as a professional, the rookie McConnell is two years his senior.
"Me and Nerlens definitely have a special connection," McConnell said. "He's just in my ear, showing me film, telling me what I can do better. And I'm doing the same for him. The best thing about him is he listens to what I have to say, even though I'm a rookie."
Their connection was on full display in the early goings Monday night against Cleveland. McConnell found Noel for three-straight buckets during the Sixers' first-quarter burst, including a nice alley-oop off the pick-and-roll.
McConnell found Noel for another easy jam in the second quarter. He finished with 12 dimes overall.
The McConnell-Noel relationship became apparent during the preseason. Possession after possession, McConnell would be in Noel's ear during stoppages in play, offering words of advice or small encouragements and a slap on the butt. "I try to be a motivating guy and tell them I got their backs," McConnell said.
"T.J. is definitely one of the most communicative point guards I've ever played with," Noel said.
"I think point guards are born," Brett Brown added. "It's hard to coach how to be a point guard in regards to mentality and intellect and feel. [McConnell] is a true point guard. And that's something that we need on our roster."
McConnell reminds Brown of another undrafted point guard who scrapped his way into the league.
"I've spent a long time with [Matthew] Dellavedova when I coached the Australian Olympic team and, you know, nobody thought Dellavedova was going to be an NBA player," Brown said. "And there are lots of similarities to me with T.J. where he just has an enormous heart and he plays with tremendous spirit. For us, because we're trying to uncover point guards, it's a really great opportunity for him and I think the timing is right."
Three games into the season, McConnell has out-performed the Sixers' lone other healthy point guard, Isaiah Canaan, in terms of creation and ball control. McConnell has tallied 20 assists and just 6 turnovers compared to Canaan's 5:7 assist to turnover ratio.
All 30 teams deemed T.J. McConnell undraftable in June, but he's proven, for now, he can belong at this level. "People said I wouldn't be here," McConnell said. "But sorry to break it to you, I'm here."