T.J. McConnell came to the Sixers as a very undrafted free agent out of Arizona and Duquesne with so little fanfare he wasn't even invited to the 2015 Portsmouth Invitational -- a pre-draft camp for seniors playing for Summer League invites. Meanwhile, Wofford's Karl Cochran (?) got an invite. T.J. played on great Arizona teams, and outside of Tucson, he sorta just blended in. In his 4-year college career, he never averaged over 9 shots per game. For reference, JaKarr Sampson (MISS HIM) averaged 12.4 shots per game in his two years at St. John's.
And even when he did break camp with the Sixers and get regular minutes as a rookie, he couldn't even get into Philadelphia bars without paying a cover.
Which all makes his solid-so-goddamn-solid rookie year for the Sixers so interesting. He made it. He may have only made it because of Sam Hinkie's style of team building, but he made it. Brett Brown loves him, and if Bryan Colangelo cuts him, I'll buy every dang billboard in Philadelphia. He's here. He should be here for a decade.
He's the prototypical college player you'd reference to impress your friends 5 years later (Corey Lofton stand up), but ultimately lose track of when he goes to play within wherever James Gist is playing (it's Greece). If Arizona made a deeper tournament run in his time there (stifled in two straight Elite Eight's to Frank Kaminsky's Wisconsin teams), he would have been more nationally lauded for his scrap, his toughness, his fight, and any other bullshit words lazy media use to describe talent-lite white point guards.
I generally don't talk about race on LB, because well, nobody is asking for my white-ass take. But T.J. is interesting because he's representative of those Aaron Craft-ish stereotypes that, usually through no fault of their own, make him the kind of player I'd normally hate. Nik Stauskas is more of the shooty 2-guard J.J. Redick mold, but T.J. is straight out of the Aaron Craft scrapbook.
Hustle on defense. A tendency to "slow it down and start over." A funky, efforty release. Some mouthguard-esque affect. And grit. So much grit. All the grit. Kibbles and Grits. It's usually too much to overcome.
But I love him. I love him so much I want to scream. And I can't see him the way I'd normally see limited upside players like him, because I'm blinded by my paternal affection for him. So I went to Mike Baumann, who, while also uneasy about how white-ass his take is, does not suffer from parental blindness:
I guess I don't hate T.J. McConnell in particular--he's just a guy doing his best to make a living in the NBA. But I hate that people like the category of player he represents. He's the avatar for people who think college basketball is better because college players play a more fundamentally sound game (which is nonsense). This is code for "I want to watch small, smart, tough white kids succeed against big, dumb, lazy black kids." It's not really about toughness and intelligence and fighting spirit, it's about race, and you can tell by reading Aaron Craft's press next to Marcus Smart's.
"War is the continuation of politics by other means," wrote Clausewitz, and sports are a proxy for war. So cheerleading for T.J. McConnell, or for his archetype, for having succeeded by desire and intelligence alone, is dangerous. Peddling the fiction that a player--particularly a white player--can succeed in sports because he wants it more insinuates that people fail in sports only because they didn't try hard enough. That'd be annoying if it were confined to sports, but it isn't--that nonsense gets chucked around in education policy, healthcare policy, debates about the welfare state, where the hardworking whites, it is said, are made to subsidize the indolence of the indolent blacks. So holding up a player like T.J. McConnell as the Great White Hope makes me uneasy. How much do we white fans praise him for his game, and how much of it is wrapped up in feeling more comfortable watching someone who looks like us on an NBA floor, because we think people who look like us somehow deserve it more?
I agree with a lot of that. I think it's all good to keep in mind when we watch sports because sports don't exist in a paradigm outside of society -- they're baked into it. I don't *think* I like TJ because he looks sorta like me -- I don't mess with a goatee, please -- I think I like him because I like the way he plays.
He constantly surprises better players by hitting 15-footers in their face. He's quicker than you'd expect, but his release on a three takes a full month (34.8% from deep though! solid!!!!). His DRB% was better than Jerami Grant's and Richaun Holmes's. He was tied with Nerlens Noel in steal percentage. So yes, he's the vehicle that lazy, latent racists use to spread stereotypes and cast casual aspersions on non-white players. But he's also a mighty fine basketball player. And the fact that he's as white as Ben Hansbrough shouldn't be held against him.
It's important to check yourself and your biases from time to time to make sure you don't think a thing for the wrong reasons. But my love for TJ is honest. It is good. It is colorless.
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