Whether You Call Him 'Water Boy' or 'Paperboy,' TJ McConnell Is Here to Stay

Michael Pina@@MichaelVPinaFeatured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2017

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 30: T.J. McConnell #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers reacts in the fourth quarter against the Sacramento Kings at the Wells Fargo Center on January 30, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The 76ers defeated the Kings 122-119. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Tim McConnell chokes up whenever he thinks about that phone call.

The decorated high school basketball coach from western Pennsylvania doesn’t normally carry his cell during practice, but this afternoon was special. It sat in his pocket, buzzing with updates from close friends. One after the other.

"One of the texts I got said, 'McConnell is still in the gym. He has a chance,' he said. "And I started to get excited." The life-altering news finally arrived at 3:15 p.m., just as the 76ers were finalizing their opening day roster for the 2015-16 season:

"Your son is an NBA player," the elder McConnell heard. He started to cry.

T.J. McConnell’s winding journey since that moment, and everything that led to it, is like a Pixar-produced short film. It's the luck of a lottery winner combined with a tireless work ethic—a lifetime spent sweating, working and plotting inside a gymnasium.

It’s a success story that’s just begun: an undrafted, undersized point guard who dismissed potential opportunities overseas to sign a four-year, non-guaranteed deal in Philadelphia.

It's not every day a relative non-athlete with a garbled three-point stroke not only cracks an NBA roster but also muscles his way into a starting lineup and draws attention from several teams around the league, including, reportedly, the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers.

It’s now clear McConnell belongs, but how did he get here?

The NBA is filled with supreme athletes who dance on air and turn their nose up at gravity's limitations. They bounce over sedans, sprint 94 feet in one breath and have arms long enough to deserve an extra elbow. McConnell, at first glance, possesses zero of these qualities.

He had the smallest hands and second-shortest wingspan measured at his draft combine, with a standing vertical leap and max vertical leap that were 7.5 and 8.0 inches shorter, respectively, than that of current teammate Chasson Randle, who’s now in and out of Philly’s rotation.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 27: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets dribbles the ball against T.J. McConnell #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers in the first quarter at the Wells Fargo Center on January 27, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  NOTE TO USER: U
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"For face value, he’s not a workout warrior—I mean, he works out hard, he competes his behind off, but he wasn’t born with that innate freak athletic ability that people tend to notice in workouts," his agent, Omar Wilkes, said.

"We knew [going undrafted] was a possibility. But we also knew if we got him on the right team in Summer League, and teams were able to see how he plays five-on-five and how he controls an offense and just leads with high character and an intensity that’s just infectious—that spreads throughout the team—that he would have a real good shot."

McConnell’s childhood revolved around the sport. "It’s been my life. Ever since I can remember I’ve been going to my dad’s practices, being in the gym with him and it’s been, in our family, it’s been our whole life," McConnell told Bleacher Report. "I don’t know where I’d be without basketball."

His father has won more than 500 games as the head coach of Chartiers Valley High School—where McConnell played—and his two aunts, Suzie McConnell-Serio and Kathy McConnell-Miller, are the head coach and associate head coach for the University of Pittsburgh’s women’s team.

Suzie played three seasons in the WNBA and was named WNBA Coach of the Year in 2004. Kathy played four years at the University of Virginia and spent two years as a WNBA assistant coach.

T.J's mother, Shelly, didn't know if basketballs were blown up or stuffed before she met Tim. But she eventually came around and today understands different nuances of the game. The McConnell family is basketball. Basketball is the McConnells. As a small boy, T.J., his cousins and siblings were nicknamed the "travel babies," always at his father’s practices and attending games. "That’s all T.J. has known," Kathy said. "Growing up in the gym."

It was his sanctuary, an environment he embraced and eventually thrived in once he grew old enough to make his dad’s team. By then, opposing cheering sections were merciless whenever McConnell went on the road, abusing him with chants of "Daddy’s Boy" and "Past Your Curfew." His puberty was frequently called into question.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 24: T.J. McConnell #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers celebrates with Nerlens Noel #4 in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers at the Wells Fargo Center on January 24, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The 76ers defeat
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"He’d be on the free-throw line and you’d just see him smile," Suzie said. "He loved it."

In an anecdote relayed by Bruce Pascoe of the Arizona Daily Star, when McConnell was first offered a scholarship to Duquesne University, Dukes head coach Ron Everhart was asked, "When did you start recruiting water boys?"

 

The "water boy" would be named Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year. McConnell then transferred to the University of Arizona in 2012, where he played beside Aaron Gordon, Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors his senior season.

It was in between that junior and senior year when Tim—who drove across Pennsylvania to attend 15 Sixers games last year and plans to see even more once his own season wraps up in early March—vividly remembers T.J. recalibrating his expectations. "He said ‘Dad, I don’t know if it’s gonna work or not but I’m surely gonna try to give it a shot to be in the NBA. And if it doesn’t, then I’ll look into overseas to continue my career. But why can’t I try to be in the NBA?'", he said.

At the time, competing in the world's greatest league was still a mirage, and it remained so even after McConnell agreed to a contract on draft night. The 76ers weren’t stocked with elite point guard talent, but odds were still heavily against McConnell making the team.

"I knew there was a chance, but you never want to think ahead," McConnell said. "I kind of flew under the radar throughout my college career. Our team was really good, but I don’t think even myself or anyone expected me to be in the NBA."

He was one of six point guards to make Philadelphia’s training camp roster. Kendall Marshall, Isaiah Canaan, Tony Wroten, Pierre Jackson and Scottie Wilbekin were all guaranteed more money, but McConnell still earned a spot.

Later that month, his debut went as poorly as expected during a humiliating loss against the Boston Celtics. McConnell looks back at it now with depressing clarity.

"Isaiah Thomas proceeded to give me the easiest 30 points I think anyone has ever done," he said. "It was, I mean, we lost the game, and you can ask Nik Stauskas—we talk about it to this day. That was like kind of my 'Welcome to the NBA, rookie [moment].' It was a miserable day."

Injuries to Ben Simmons and Jerryd Bayless helped McConnell grab the starting job this year, and he's a significant reason Philadelphia is no longer a league-wide embarrassment. The emergence of Joel Embiid as a borderline All-Star is an undeniable factor in why they've played so well, but the organization sorely needed a primary ball-handler who could calm choppy waters and stabilize an uptempo offense.

(A knee injury kept Embiid out for 13 of Philly's last 14 games, and it's unclear when he'll return.)

"I think you could have a serious discussion that he’s amongst our most valuable players," Sixers head coach Brett Brown said.

"And I completely mean that. My friends in Philadelphia would understand even more why...he’s the heartbeat to our team. He’s got a spirit and a personality that I’m completely attracted to—it’s how I see the world too—and he just has taken this unique opportunity and grabbed it by the throat."

This year, Philadelphia’s offense averages 105.8 points per 100 possessions when Embiid shares the floor with McConnell. When the Rookie of the Year favorite plays without McConnell, that number tumbles down to 99.8.

In other words, their offense goes from slightly above league average to the basement. 

McConnell's skill set, on paper, is from a different generation. Pass-first point guards are a relic in today’s NBA. Pass-first point guards who can't shoot are a liability.

Statistics frown at his increased role, and it’s useless to argue against them. Among all guards who’ve launched at least 30 threes this season, only Michael Carter-Williams and Semaj Christon are less accurate than McConnell’s 21.2 percent. He turns the ball over at an alarming rate, and might be the least effective transition scorer in the entire league, per Synergy Sports.

Defenses know he's not a scoring threat and are starting to stay home on outside shooters when he navigates into the paint.

"I’m gonna work on my three-point shot relentlessly this summer," McConnell said. "I’m gonna live in a gym and work on everything. But my main focus is to be able to be a knockdown shooter. I know I can be, it’s just about the confidence and the reps."

His outside shot is for another day; McConnell’s selfless vision is why he's here. He detects open teammates a split second before they actually spring free, and the only player in the entire league who averages more passes per game is James Harden.

McConnell tallies the same number of potential assists as Kyle Lowry, despite logging nearly 13 fewer minutes per game.

"He knows where his shooters are. If you watch them, they don’t have to do much with it," Suzie McConnell-Serio said. "They’re not putting the ball on the floor, two dribbles to get to the three-point line. They’re not having to create their shot. He is putting it on the money, and I wish I had a point guard like him, to be honest with you. He makes everyone better."

McConnell's come a long way from that thrashing by Thomas to where he is today. Again, the numbers aren't what stand out, but there are countless indescribable and immeasurable ways he makes life easier for everyone around him.

"I think after coaching him and being around him for so long, even as a young boy when I didn’t coach him, that he has the 'it' factor," Tim said. "A lot of people can’t explain what that is but he has that special knack."

His make-up might've gone unnoticed by scouts and front office executives all over the NBA a couple years ago, but today it's very much appreciated by the guys he plays with. They know better than anyone how special McConnell's contributions are.

"It helps to have a point guard on the floor who’s always involved, always picking the other point guard up full court," Stauskas said. "Because even for me, guarding a 2-guard, if my guys coming off pin downs or what not, it helps to have [McConnell’s] ball pressure so the passes aren’t easy to my guy, and it gives me time to recover."

Overlooked talents who make the most of an unforeseen are not uncommon—shades of Jeremy Lin or Wesley Matthews come to mind—but still, McConnell's story feels unusual.

There are undrafted players all over the NBA, but none look like a paperboy, which is how Charlotte Hornets play-by-play announcer Eric Collins described McConnell during a recent game.

His unbridled enthusiasm has endeared him to a city that’s been gasping for passionate basketball these last few years. The buzzer-beating shots that downed Carmelo Anthony’s New York Knicks and the Orlando Magic are gravy, but McConnell's doughty contributions stretch far beyond the court, and most can't be quantified.

"I’m sure if you put him through a shooting drill and ball-handling drills and you compare him to the other best 100 guards in the world, I’m sure there’s a lot of guys who can shoot and dribble better than he can," Stauskas said. "But there’s something different [when] you put him on that court. It’s a game situation, there’s pressure on the line, and you’re competing. It’s not a statistic, it can’t really be measured; there’s just that thing, it’s like having a chip on your shoulder or something in your heart that drives you.

"And you see it too with guys like Tom Brady. Obviously there’s the famous thing; you know his combine scores were the worst ever, and before the Super Bowl, you see pictures of him and it looks like he’s out of shape, unathletic. But you put him on that field and there’s something that comes out of him, and you can’t really measure that from watching him do drills or looking at a percentage or looking at a stat.

"So that’s the cool thing about sports. It doesn’t always come down to those things. It’s about what’s in your heart and what’s really driving you, and whatever that thing is, T.J. obviously has it."

 

All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise noted and accurate as of Feb. 16.