T.J. McConnell Making A Case To Start For 76ers

Undrafted rookie T.J. McConnell has been impressive for the 76ers early on. Is it time for him to start?

Undrafted point guard T.J. McConnell has been impressive so far for the Sixers | Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Undrafted point guard T.J. McConnell has been impressive so far for the Sixers | Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The 76ers point guard situation has been one of the frequent topics of conversation around the team so far during this young NBA season.

Already short on name talent, the Sixers are further set back by injuries to Tony Wroten and Kendall Marshall. Both Marshall and Wroten suffered torn ACL’s last winter and neither are expected to return any time in the immediate future.

That has left the Sixers with two natural point guards on roster: Isaiah Canaan, a second round selection in the 2013 NBA draft that the Sixers acquired from the Houston Rockets at the trade deadline last year, and T.J. McConnell, an undrafted rookie out of the University of Arizona.

After stating before the season that they were likely to carry three point guards over to the fifteen man opening day roster, the Sixers changed course and kept McConnell as their fourth point guard. Wroten and Marshall being unavailable to start the season, combined with McConnell’s strong play, forced their hand.

Three games into his NBA career and McConnell may be forcing the Sixers hand once again.

The point guard battle, if there is one, hasn’t been much of a battle at all: the team has played significantly better with McConnell on the floor.

The 0-3 76ers have been outscored by a total of 52 points so far this season. That kind of deficit isn’t a huge surprise to most who predict a long, difficult season ahead for the Sixers. But with McConnell on the floor the Sixers have only been outscored by 9 points, 164-173, in 77 minutes of action. When he’s been on the bench? The Sixers have been outscored by 43 points in 67 minutes of play.

The numbers become even more staggering the deeper you dive into them.

With McConnell on the court the Sixers are shooting a respectable 47.5% from the field and 37.1% from three point range, good for a true shooting percentage 58.4%. With McConnell on the bench the wheels have fallen off the Sixers offense: they’re shooting just 30.0% from the field and 26.9% from three point range when McConnell has been off the floor, good for a dismal true shooting percentage of 39.8%.

The numbers continue in McConnell’s favor: the Sixers attempt more shots in the restricted area (34.4% of their field goal attempts vs 31.8%) when McConnell is playing, and do so at a significantly higher efficiency (66.7% vs 54.3%). The ball moves better (36 assists on 58 made field goals with McConnell on the court vs 13 assists on 33 made field goals when he’s on the bench), they play at a higher pace, and their defense improves (106.2 points per 100 possessions allowed with McConnell playing vs 108.4 when he’s on the bench).

The numbers, as one might expect, show a similar, albeit inverse, relationship with Canaan on the court. The numbers aren’t exact opposites of McConnell’s, since McConnell and Canaan have been on the court together at times, but the pattern has been clear: the Sixers so far have shot 34.3% with Canaan on the court, 29.5% from three point range, shoot only 57.4% in the restricted area, and score only 84.9 points per 100 possessions when Canaan is on the court.

76ers Offensive Performance (Team)
PlayerFG%3PT%TS%Off Rtg
T.J. McConnell47.5%37.1%58.4%103.5
Isaiah Canaan34.3%29.5%44.9%84.9
A comparison of how the Sixers offense has performed when T.J. McConnell and Isaiah Canaan are on the court. True shooting percentage is an adjustment to field goal percentage that factors in the additional value of a three shot and free throws. Off Rtg, or offensive rating, is an estimate of the points an offense scores per 100 possessions. Data through November 3rd, 2015. Data courtesy of nba.com/stats

One of the primary beneficiaries of McConnell’s court vision has been Nerlens Noel. Noel has played 44 minutes with McConnell, 61 without. He’s averaging 27.3 points per 48 minutes on 47.4% shooting from the field when McConnell has been in the game vs 8.7 points and 26.3% shooting when McConnell is on the bench.

That field goal percentage includes an astounding 87.5% shooting in the restricted area when McConnell has been on the court, with shots in the restricted area making up over 42% of his attempts when paired with McConnell, compared with just 26.3% of his attempts when McConnell has been on the bench.

A very similar picture is painted with the Sixers other prized big man, rookie Jahlil Okafor. Okafor and McConnell have played 46 minutes together, with Okafor playing 55 minutes while McConnell has been on the bench. Okafor is shooting 72.2% with McConnell on the floor, including 75% in the restricted area, against 38.7% with McConnell on the bench, which includes 53.8% in the restricted area.

Field goal percentage when either T.J. McConnell or Isaiah Canaan play. Data as of November 3rd, 2015.

Field goal percentage when either T.J. McConnell or Isaiah Canaan play. Data as of November 3rd, 2015. All data courtesy of nba.com/stats.

It’s not that McConnell is passing the ball more than Canaan. In fact, Canaan makes 65 passes per game, compared to 58.7 per game for McConnell. But where 11.4% of McConnell’s passes end up in assists, only 2.6% of Canaan’s do. The end result is Canaan is averaging 1.7 assists per game and creating 3.7 points for the Sixers out of those passes, whereas McConnell dishes out 6.7 assists per game and creates 15.7 points per game for the team while doing so.

What’s been particularly impressive has been how McConnell has operated in the half court. Some point guards are reliant on pushing the ball in transition to bump up their assist totals, but struggle when the game slows down to a half court setting. Michael Carter-Williams, for example, saw his assist-to-turnover ratio fall to 1.5-to-1 when confined to the half court. McConnell, on the other hand, has been the opposite: McConnell’s assist-to-turnover ratio has actually gone up — to 3.8 assists per turnover — in half court play.

Assists per turnover by Sixers point guards in the half court. Data through Nov 3rd, 2015.

Assists per turnover by Sixers point guards in the half court. Data through Nov 3rd, 2015. All data courtesy of nba.com/stats.

In short, McConnell’s passing and feel for the game have gotten his teammates, especially Noel and Okafor, significantly better looks at the basket.

The statistics, as telling as they are, have been backed up by the eye test as well, as the team has had a much better offensive flow to it with McConnell at the helm. Whether that would be simple kickout passes to shooters, keeping his dribble alive to find cutters, lobs to his big men, or simple entry passes into the post, McConnell has made the correct decisions with the basketball. They also reinforce the kind of impact McConnell had in college, where his 39% assist rate and 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio were both among the best in the country.

It’s too early in the season for statistics such as these to be proof of anything, and most of these numbers are bound to come back to Earth, both in positive manner for Canaan and a regression for McConnell, to provide  a more realistic measure of the impact each has had. Three games is far from a large enough sample size to base conclusions off of.

But these statistics don’t need to be used to come to conclusions. Not yet, at least. The Sixers are still likely weeks away from getting either Wroten or Marshall back, so both McConnell and Canaan will have plenty of time to prove their worth.

The stats also aren’t mean to suggest McConnell is the long-term answer at the point guard position. His small stature, lack of elite athleticism, struggles to generate his own offense and an inconsistent three point shot limit his potential.

What the stats do say, however, is that McConnell has earned his spot on the roster. They have, at least thus far, validated the decision the team made to keep him on the regular season roster. And they quite possibly suggest what some of the key pieces of this team, and the offense as a whole, are capable of with a good passing point guard in place.

Perhaps most directly, they also suggest that McConnell has outplayed Isaiah Canaan so far. After Monday night’s loss to the Cavaliers where McConnell dropped 12 assists to 0 turnovers, Brett Brown acknowledged that there is nothing promised with this team, the point guard spot especially. If McConnell continues his strong play he might force Brown’s hand once again.