Why the Philadelphia 76ers' T.J. McConnell Deserves Your Attention

Un-drafted rookie T.J. McConnell has made NBA history after his first four games.

What a difference six months can make.

Who would ever expect a player to go from being overlooked in the NBA Draft, to signing as a free agent, to making a roster filled with high profile prospects, to becoming the starter and court general for that team, and then becoming part of the fantasy basketball landscape?

Well, this is the story of former Arizona Wildcat standout and current Philadelphia 76ers rookie point guard T.J. McConnell, and he is quickly becoming one of the the first feel-good stories of the 2015-16 NBA season.

On Wednesday night, Sixers' head coach Brett Brown decided it was time to sit Isaiah Canaan and place McConnell into the starting lineup against the Milwaukee Bucks. Going into the game, Cannan was ranked 172nd in the league with a -10.9 nERD, which measures a player's overall efficiency on the basketball court. He was shooting a dismal 29% from the floor in his 33.3 minutes per game. Meanwhile, McConnell was coming off of a fantastic 12-assist game, where he filled the stat line with 6 points and 7 rebounds earlier in the week against Cleveland.

In his first career start against the Bucks, McConnell remained true to form, flirting with a triple double. He tallied 7 points (3-of-4 from the field) and 9 rebounds to go along with replicating his 12-assist performance of earlier in the week. He became the first rookie in NBA history to have two 12-assist games in his first four career games, according to ESPN and Elias Sports.

The question that follows is whether this is a flash in the pan or a precursor to what is to follow? As Will Smith said in the movie Hitch, “You can’t really know where you’re going, until you know where you have been.” So to better understand why T.J. McConnell needs to be on your radar, here’s a little history.

McConnell Prior to the NBA

As a senior in high school at Chartiers Valley, just outside of Pittsburgh in Bridgeville, Pennsylvania, McConnell was named player of the year by multiple sport outlets after a season in which he averaged almost triple-double a game with 34.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 9.1 assists. He went on to Duquesne University and played a huge role right away as a freshman in 2010-11 where he made a name for himself with his passing and defense.

He ranked fourth nationally in steals, and his 2.5:1 assist-to-turnover ratio was the sixth-best ratio for a freshman in NCAA history. As a sophomore, he became an all-conference performer, averaging 11.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.8 steals per game. He ranked 3rd nationally in steals per game and tied for 31st nationally in assists per game.

After his sophomore season, he transferred to the University of Arizona to play for Sean Miller, who is a Pittsburgh, blue-collar kind of guy just like McConnell. It was said that during the year that McConnell had to sit out because of NCAA transfer rules, McConnell was the best player on the Wildcats roster. He treated practices the same as he would game situations and showed leadership through his effort. 

When he finally got onto the floor, the nation saw what his teammates had been seeing for a year on the practice court. He instantly became an upper echelon player, including his high percentage shooting, great floor awareness and tenacious defense. He was among the Pac-12 elite in steals per game.

Arizona has long been known as "Point Guard U" with players like Steve Kerr, Mike Bibby, Khalid Reeves, Damon Stoudamire, Jason Terry and more coming out of Tucson. McConnell etched himself among that great lineage as he finished his career with the Arizona Wildcat program record for assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.03. He was named to two consecutive Pac-12 All-Defensive teams. As a senior, he led the Pac-12 in assists (6.3) and assist-to-turnover ratio (3.05), ranked 2nd in steals (2.2) and 14th in field goal percentage (49.8%).

While the rosters on which he played included a number of top NBA draft picks (Aaron Gordon, Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson), no one missed the fact that McConnell was, in part, responsible for their individual and team success. Many credit him as much as any other member of the teams for the Cats' two consecutive Elite Eight appearances.

How This Translates to the NBA

Coming out of Arizona, T.J. McConnell may not have had the measurables that some believe are critical for a productive point guard in today’s NBA. Clearly, those qualities kept him well outside the two rounds of the annual NBA Draft. But quite possibly the best thing that could have happened for McConnell is the fact that he did not get drafted.

Despite the fact that going in as a free agent resulted in lower pay and non-guaranteed money, McConnell was able to select the best fit for his talents, and the Sixers are proving to be just that for him.

The Sixers are 0-4, and it hasn’t been pretty. They have an Offensive Rating of 93.0 which is 30th in the NBA and a Defensive Rating of 107.8, which is 24th overall. Yet McConnell is the only player on the roster that has a positive nERD (0.8) and positive nF efficiency rating (0.4).

It is not a reach to say that he has been the most productive member of the roster.

While the season has just started, it is noteworthy that McConnell has been shooting well from the floor (52.9%), is wracking up assists (5th in the NBA at 8 per game), and has been among the top rebounding point guard producers despite a lower amount of playing time (10th in the NBA amongst guards at 4.8 per game). McConnell does it on both ends of the court, putting up an impressive 1.5 steals per game.

The Sixers have spent the last couple of seasons rebuilding and adding some of the most elite talent that the NBA Draft has had to offer. They added great frontcourt players in Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor and a shooter in Nik Stauskas, to name a few. What the team needs is a quarterback to get these young playmakers the ball.

Coach Brown may have determined that McConnell is the perfect man to run their team and set them up for success.

McConnell has been named the starter in Philadelphia, and he could be there to stay. If that is the case, he could prove to have significant fantasy value for teams in need of production in assists, steals, rebounds and field goal percentage.

T.J McConnell will likely have coaching in his future, but he is showing that the coaching profession must be put on hold while he proves to those who felt that his lack of flash, speed and size would prevent him from having any impact at the highest level. He demands your attention, and the time to strike is now before it becomes common knowledge that he is a vital complement to any fantasy roster.