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Sixers Tinder: TJ McConnell has proven his place

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He has gritted, hustled and pure point guard-ed his way into the NBA

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a trope I often find myself saying when discussing NBA Draft point guard prospects: “He could play his way onto a roster like TJ McConnell.” It’s an idea that’s simple in theory. Historically — well, at least in modern NBA history — teams have reserved their 15th roster spot for a break-in-case-of-emergency third point guard.

The Cavaliers did it this season with Kay Felder. The Rockets rostered Tyler Ennis for a specific reason before flipping him for Lou Williams. The Celtics carried Demetrius Jackson all season. Jose Calderon damn-near personified the role for the last few years before seemingly resuscitating his career in Atlanta these playoffs. The third point guard is typically an easy way to make a living, analogous to the backup quarterback in the NFL. And when teams aren’t harboring a ball handler as a safety net, they use that spot to shuffle in point guards on 10-day contracts.

So, if you’re a moderately athletic, moderately skilled lead guard, you’re going to have a chance to play your want onto a roster like TJ McConnell. But taking the colossal leap from making a roster to contributing... and then soaring from contributor to starter? That’s a distinction reserved for few and far between. Yes, McConnell’s rise into the starting point guard of a measly 28-win team is far from the pinnacle of NBA success. But the context surrounding that label equally helps his case.

McConnell finished 8th in the league in assists this season, 7th in assist percentage, 4th in assist/turnover ratio, and led the damn league in total passes. The man spreads the wealth, and, cliche as it may be, makes his teammates better on the offensive side of the ball. In today’s pick-and-roll era, the ability to keep your dribble alive has grown increasingly more valuable. And there might not be a better present-day Steve Nash impression, darting into the paint, circling under the basket and dashing back out, while surveying the entire floor and maintaining a forceful dribble than that of McConnell. He probes and pesters defenses, milking every last second of the shot clock, holding out hope to find a more skilled scorer to loft a shot.

That’s a rare ability. When NBA action is whirring on both sides of the ball, it’s nearly impossible to remain patient for an entire shot clock. There are multiple reads to make, instructions from a coach to hear over a screaming crowd and an incessant, red timer ticking down literally ever second. McConnell has that. It’s innate. You’re going to wake up one day and smile when you log onto Basketball Reference and realize, TJ McConnell has been in the league for 11 years?

He’s a coach’s dream. He directs endless traffic. He develops symbiotic relationships with his big men. He used to text Nerlens Noel videos of Nash and Amare Stoudemire high pick-and-rolls, claiming they could emulate the prolific duo. That’s chutzpah you want in a point guard, regardless of his role. And that’s where McConnell’s fate begins to grow murky.

He’s most likely not a starting point guard, despite the role he played this season. While his statistics show he was likely top-10 in the NBA at the position in terms of production this season, those assist numbers are fairly easy to compile within Brett Brown’s voraciously-paced offense. He’s often far physically-overmatched by his opponent on the other end of the floor. His three-point percentage plummeted from 34.8% in his rookie year to 20.0% on 55 attempts this season. When you watched McConnell tee up from distance, you hardly ever expected it to fall in.

I believe those issues stem from a lack of cohesion between his arms and legs on jump shots. On his epic game winner against New York, his rhythm looks fine. He gathers, jumps and begins his motion all in unison.

He uses those mechanics whenever defenses surrender his midrange pull-ups. And he shot a remarkable 46.1% from 10 to 16 feet this season. But when he steps behind the three-point line, or even in the long-two zone, his conversion rate nosedives. Even on his three-point makes, McConnell shifts the ball above his head before he begins his jump.

That’s like cocking a ball behind your head and pausing before throwing it. You’re instantly going to lose power and accuracy. The prolonged wind-up also makes it that much harder for McConnell to get it off in space. He knows that, and it’s evident when he turns down relatively open looks in favor of attacking a closeout. That happened far too many times with the clock dwindling and limited time remained to hunt for a better look. McConnell needs to shoot more from distance to keep defenses honest and stretched. The Sixers’ staff should have plenty of opportunity this summer to make his long-range jumper more fluid, however. That gorgeous new practice facility will house hours and hours of development this offseason.

The current product is still very promising. I’ll take McConnell on my team any day. He’s getting married this summer. Coaches around the league typically say point guards take a leap in their third year, especially when it comes to mastering pick-and-roll negotiations. I don’t believe he will mature into a legitimate starter. But Timothy John has a true path to backing up the Sixers’ franchise point guard and providing quality minutes for a long, long time.

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What would you do with TJ McConnell?

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  • 79%
    Swipe Right
    (606 votes)
  • 4%
    Swipe Left
    (36 votes)
  • 15%
    Shave his head
    (119 votes)
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