Sixers Point Guard T.J. McConnell Continues to Overcome Seemingly Insurmountable Odds

T.J. McConnell called playing in the NBA his lifelong dream. McConnell will realize those dreams, as it was announced yesterday he had made the Sixers' opening day roster.

T.J. McConnell, an undrafted rookie point guard out of Arizona, has made the Sixers | Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

T.J. McConnell, an undrafted rookie point guard out of Arizona, has made the Sixers opening day roster | Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers roster has been no stranger to long shots over the last few years, and T.J. McConnell is no exception.

McConnell has been long shot at every stage of his basketball career.

He wasn’t a top-100 recruit out of high school, yet worked his way into becoming a leader on one of the best teams in the country. He built a defensive identity without the physical tools most would deem necessary to do so. He wasn’t drafted, but he found out yesterday that he would make the Sixers opening day roster.

“I think that’s been the case for all of us. We’ve been counted out in whatever we’ve done,” McConnell said about this group of point guards. “We can only control what we can control, and that’s what we do on the court.”

If you saw McConnell in street clothes he doesn’t immediately jump out to you as an NBA player. He stands generously listed 6’2” in shoes, with a 6’2” wingspan and a vertical jump of 31.5” measured at the NBA Draft Combine that seems downright human.

Some players carve out their defensive niche thanks to elite physical tools they use to smother opponents. McConnell wasn’t blessed with such attributes. Yet if you talk to anybody who followed Arizona basketball over the last two seasons McConnell was a huge part of a defense that ranked 1st and 3rd in the nation in points allowed per possession during McConnell’s two-year stint there

“There’s obviously not a guy like Russell Westbrook running the point guard here,” McConnell said. “My thing is no matter how tall, big, and fast you are, if you get the job done you get the job done.”

And get the job done he did.

McConnell’s preseason averages, much likes his numbers in college, don’t jump off the page. He averaged a modest 6.2 points and 4.8 assists in 22 minutes per game during the preseason and was never a big scoring threat at Arizona, averaging just 9.4 points per game during his 76 game career in Tucson.

It’s his impact on the game that has always set McConnell apart.

While McConnell might not have the elite athleticism or size for his position, he makes up for it in sheer effort and determination. His 4.3% steal rate ranked 18th in the nation and first in the Pac-12. He ranked 5th in the nation among guards in Defensive Box Plus/Minus and 4th among guards in Defensive Win Shares, both metrics which attempt to estimate a player’s defensive impact.

Few in the country play 94 feet of defense as well, and as consistently, as McConnell did these past two seasons. He has made a career out of making life miserable for opposing ball handlers.

That impact on the defensive end carried over to the Sixers preseason, and was a big reason McConnell made the team. The Sixers allowed 95.5 points per 100 possessions while McConnell was on the court, the best rating among the point guards who played for the Sixers this preseason and below the team average of 96.9. In fact, the Sixers actually outscored opponents while McConnell was on the court, one of only two players in the Sixers regular rotation, along with Robert Covington, that was true for.

“If I’m lucky enough to make the team, it’s been a lifelong dream of mine to play in the NBA,” McConnell told reporters yesterday before the news broke that he had secured a roster spot. “If it happens, I will be lost for words.”

Thanks in large part to an ability to pressure the ball defensively, along with smart decision making, a high basketball IQ, and a knack for running a team and getting guys into their spots offensively, McConnell has realized his dream.

While McConnell may have realized a lifelong dream yesterday, the hardest part, sticking on an NBA roster, may have just begun.

The Sixers have seen many young players accomplish lifelong dreams over the past two seasons, a fact that is a byproduct of how they’re conducting their rebuild.

Some end up like Robert Covington. Overshadowed in the hotbed of Chicago basketball and overlooked in his draft class, Covington joined the Sixers in November of last year a virtual unknown. Now, not even a year later, he’s an established NBA player who thrived on the opportunity presented to him.

That’s not always the case. For every Robert Covington there’s a handful of players like Christapher Johnson and Adonis Thomas. You have to overcome staggering odds to stick around as an undrafted free agent in the NBA.

For McConnell, he’s been overcoming staggering odds his entire basketball career. It’s easy to look at McConnell and see a player who should be physically overmatched. His ability to translate to the next level – whether that would be the jump from high school to college, from the A-10 to the Pac-12, or from the Pac-12 to the NBA – has always been questioned, and those questions have been answered at each and every stop.

Regardless of whether the odds seem insurmountable, T.J. McConnell’s not going to fail because of a lack of effort. And based on his track record, it may be time to stop overlooking the pesky point guard out of Pittsburgh.

McConnell’s twitter handle, iPass4Zona, is a perfect representation of who he is as a basketball player and the mentality he plays the game with. But it now needs updating, as McConnell no longer has to rest on his laurels of being an accomplished college point guard. He’s now an NBA player.