Rudy, Michael Oher, Buster Douglas…everyone loves a good underdog story. T.J. McConnell was First Team All-State in high school, A-10 Freshman of the Year while at Duquesne and First Team All-Pac-12 as a senior at Arizona. Those aren’t typically the accolades one would associate with an underdog.
However, when making the leap from college to the pros, yesterday’s Big Man on Campus often becomes tomorrow’s roster long shot. Most league evaluators assumed McConnell would ultimately find his career path heading down the lucrative, but more under-the-radar road to overseas basketball.
Then, when the Philadelphia 76ers signed McConnell to a partially guaranteed deal as an undrafted free agent over the summer, it was seen as the classic ‘Just Another Guy’ situation, like when NFL teams bring extra bodies into training camp. At 23 years old, McConnell is practically an old man by the standards of the Sixers roster. Standing 6’2″ with a 6’2″ wingspan, he also doesn’t fit the typical measurements the team has looked for in its draft prospects. Conventional thinking was that McConnell was brought in temporarily for his pass-first mentality at the point-guard position to help properly showcase the other players on the squad.
However, as the calendar has flipped to October, so too has the narrative on McConnell. With rehabilitation from ACL surgeries still sidelining Tony Wroten and Kendall Marshall, and Pierre Jackson just returning to action Friday following a groin injury, a vacuum has been created at the backup point-guard position. More than anyone else this fall for the Sixers, McConnell has seized the opportunity presented to him, making a strong case to still be on the roster when Oct. 28 rolls around.
Across the three preseason games in which he’s been a participant, McConnell sports a 44.4 percent assist ratio, easily the highest on the team (aside from Jackson who played just 12 minutes in his return Friday). He’s done an excellent job distributing the rock without turning it over left and right; his respectable 2.5 AST/TO ratio files in behind Isaiah Canaan as second-best on the team.
Finally, McConnell hasn’t shrunk from the big moments either. He hit the game-winning jumper in a win against Brooklyn, and then recorded a double-double with 10 points, 10 assists and four steals in his first start of the preseason on Friday night.
The Sixers announcing team is certainly on board with what the undrafted rookie is bringing to the table:
#Sixers commentators talking about seeing some Chris Paul and Steve Nash in TJ McConnell. My TV has been muted since.
— Hoop District (@HoopDistrictDC) October 17, 2015
Alaa started a sentence about TJ McConnell "I don't want to compare him to John Wall, but…" and my brain is lying on the floor in pieces.
— Matt Carey (@RealMattCarey) October 17, 2015
While I’m busy backing the hyperbole bus into its rightful parking place, let’s just take a moment to think how unlikely it was even a month ago that anyone watching McConnell on a basketball court would mention him in the same breath as All-Star-caliber point guards. Limited athleticism or not, no one can dispute that the former Wildcat is doing everything within his power to make a NBA roster.
So whereas so many people want to focus on perceived organizational dysfunction and room service bills that don’t meet the proper food pyramid guidelines, every once in awhile it’s refreshing to look on the brighter side of a situation. T.J. McConnell might be an underdog story right now, but if he keeps up this play for another couple of weeks, come regular season, he’ll be just another dog in the fight for Philadelphia.