NBA world now agrees: How about that T.J. McConnell? - Tucson News Now

NBA world now agrees: How about that T.J. McConnell?

T.J. McConnell will play in his fifth NBA game on Friday night against Cleveland. T.J. McConnell will play in his fifth NBA game on Friday night against Cleveland.
TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

Former Arizona Wildcats point guard T.J. McConnell has 24 assists and one turnover in his past two games as an undrafted rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Said Sixers coach Brett Brown after Wednesday night's game: "How about T.J. McConnell?"

Said McConnell's former UA teammate Dusan Ristic on Thursday: What's the big deal? Like, duh. That's just T.J. being T.J.

"After yesterday's game, I wasn't really surprised because that's what T.J. does every day," Ristic said. "He's a real hard-working guy. It's not a surprise for me. He deserved it."

Maybe not to his former teammates, but to the rest of the basketball world, McConnell has been quite the revelation and a heck of a story through the first four games of his NBA career.

Stop right there. McConnell. NBA career.

He wasn't expected to have one.

After last season, I brought in former Arizona interim head coach and current Pac-12 Networks analyst Kevin O'Neill as a guest on the afternoon sports talk show on 1290-AM (KCUB). Not to pick on O'Neill, who wonderfully speaks his mind on all things, but he was as wrong as most of us about McConnell's chances of playing anywhere professionally.

"T.J. is a very, very, very talented college point guard who I thought was really valuable to Arizona," O'Neill said. "And I think they are going to miss him as much as anybody.

"But if I had to give him some advice -- and I'm sure he doesn't want to hear that -- he should get into coaching on Sean's staff someway. He's obviously a smart guy. Mentally and intelligently, he's a very good college basketball player. His future is not in playing, his future is coaching."

Oops. Right now, his future is playing. And playing really well.

McConnell landed with a lousy team and in a perfect spot. Injuries at the point guard position opened the door in Sixers training camp -- and then he did the rest. He won the backup spot and then earned his first start Wednesday, when he flirted with a triple-double -- seven points, nine rebounds, 12 assists -- in a 91-87 loss to Milwaukee.

"It's a great story on a number of different fronts, No. 1 for T.J. and his family," said Arizona coach Sean Miller.

"You always hope that the players in your program go on to do the thing they hope or dream of doing before they ever show up here before Arizona. In this case, the lesson to be learned on our end and for so many young players is that I don't know if T.J. ever aspired necessarily to be an NBA player as much as he really locked in on trying to be the best player he could be at Arizona.

"As a matter of fact, he was probably the guy who worried more about how the other guys were doing toward pursuing their dream than his own. Ironically, it comes back in a big, big way."

Some stats about McConnell's first week in the NBA:

-- He is the first player in NBA history to have at least 12 assists in two of his first four games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

-- He is, according to Elias, the first player since box scores noted starters (1970-71) to have at least seven points, 12 assists and nine rebounds in his first start.

-- He ranks third in NBA history with 32 assists in his first four games. The others ahead of him are John Wall (38) and Jamaal Tinsley (34).

-- Heading into Thursday night's game, he was fifth in the NBA with 8.0 assists per game.

McConnell played 35 minutes on Wednesday night, when he needed a breather late in the fourth quarter, as the Sixers turned to just-signed Phil Pressey for a couple of minutes. The pace, pressure and frequency of NBA games are unlike the situations on the college level.

But there's no time like the present for McConnell to step on the accelerator as much as he can. It looks like the Sixers' show will be his, at least until Tony Wroten and Kendall Marshall come back from ACL injuries, maybe late this month or next month.

Isaiah Canaan, who started the first three games at point guard, is likely now to play more off the ball, with Pressey backing up McConnell, whose job is to feed talented, young big men Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel.

A sign of McConnell's court vision and savvy passing: Okafor is 22 of 29 from the field when McConnell is on the court, but only 12 of 33 when he's not. McConnell delivers where his big men can score.

We knew Arizona would miss him, but McConnell's early success in the NBA makes you wonder if his absence might be underrated.

"T.J. was as valuable a member of the last two seasons as we had," Miller said of McConnell, who averaged 10.4 points and 6.3 assists last season while earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors.

"He was as consistent a player as I've ever coached day in and day out. Not until somebody like that is gone do you completely understand all of the qualities that he had -- his practice habits, his leadership, his toughness, his great character and certainly his competitiveness on the court.

"To say that we're all very proud of him would be an understatement. It's remarkable what he has been able to do early on as an NBA player."

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