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T.J. McConnell Turning Into Great Find For Sixers

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McConnell's passing, defensive intensity and pleasantly surprising scoring ability has made him quite the catch for Philadelphia.

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

With Ish Smith hampered by a sprained ankle Saturday night, T.J. McConnell slotted into the starting lineup and didn't miss a beat. In 28 minutes, the rookie put up 17 points (7-10 FG, 2-2 3PT), 6 assists and 2 steals as the Sixers took down the Brooklyn Nets 103-98.

McConnell's impact is typically a little more subdued than what we saw the other night, but the extra minutes allowed him to show off three things he's done well in a reserve role: scoring, distributing the ball, and defending.

Scoring

The 23-year-old's main purpose when he's on the floor is to facilitate the offense to help set up his teammates, but he's been a solid scorer in limited doses. McConnell does enough circling around the court with the ball in his hands that he's able to create some open looks for himself. The solid mid-range game he displayed at Arizona has translated to the pro level, and although he used to look scared to take shots around the rim, a large portion of his offense comes around the restricted area. He's shooting around the league average from most spots on the floor, if not better.

Even his three-point shooting has been a pleasant surprise. McConnell hasn't taken a ton of attempts from beyond the arc, but he's not going to shoot a lot from anywhere. It's just good to know the Sixers have a ball handler not named Ish Smith that can score in select minutes.

Distributing The Ball

This is the sole reason McConnell made the roster in the first place. He's currently averaging 8.2 assists per 36 minutes, and is seventh in the NBA in assist percentage at 37.5%. To say that he's a good passer is probably an understatement, and his skill set has also been vital in improving the team's perimeter shooting. If the Pittsburgh native isn't throwing lobs to Nerlens Noel, he's looking for (and is finding) open shooters.

via NBASavant.com

via NBASavant.com

Philadelphia's three best shooters, Isaiah Canaan, Hollis Thompson and Robert Covington, have all shown improvement in field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage (which takes into account that three-pointers are worth more than two-point field goals) when McConnell is on the floor. The numbers below are courtesy of NBAwowy.com.

Player FG% eFG%
Canaan (With T.J. Off) 34 46.4
Canaan (With T.J. On) 40.7 53.8

Player FG% eFG%
Thompson (With T.J. Off) 39.5 50
Thompson (With T.J. On) 41.6 52.8

Player FG% eFG%
Covington (With T.J. Off) 34.2 44.6
Covington (With T.J. On) 41.8 53

When Philadelphia adds some more consistent perimeter threats to their roster in the near future, McConnell is going to be a nice guy to have around.

Defense

As Derek Bodner wrote about in detail on Sunday, McConnell has done a solid job as an on-ball defender. He's not the most physically gifted player, but McConnell is strong, smart, and he'll hound ball handlers all 94 feet. That tenacity has him leading all rookie guards in defensive win shares at 1.5. His steal percentage of 3.1% is also good for sixth in the NBA, ahead of noted ball hawks like John Wall and Kawhi Leonard. Steals aren't always an indicator of good defense, but McConnell frequently makes plays on the ball without trying to cheat too much.

I found McConnell's play in both Summer League and the preseason pretty uninspiring, but he's been rather consistent over the course of 51 games this season. He held down the fort through December as the team waited for Kendall Marshall to get healthy, and has been equally reliable as a backup to Ish Smith. McConnell will never put up big numbers, and as the Sixers flip the script on the rebuild next year I assume his minutes will go down, but he has a real role on this team going forward. He's the definition of a glue guy, and is putting up efficient stats to boot. Not too shabby for an undrafted free agent.