Averaging career-highs per 36 minutes in points (13.7), rebounds (6.2), and assists (10.2) over his first 10 games with the Pacers, T.J. McConnell has been like an earthworm burrowing into the narrowest of spaces. Staying in constant motion and twisting to and fro, the plucky 27-year-old patiently keeps his dribble alive with pace as he probes for slivers of opportunity to drag out unsuspecting defenders and wriggle his way into floating, pull-up twos and balanced turnaround jumpers — shots which he’s drilled at a 60 percent clip over the last three games while making himself comfy cozy in a system that, for better or worse, values openness more than shot-volume, at least when it comes to threes.
And yet, he hasn’t just taken advantage of crevices in the defense while being given the freedom to be himself; he’s tunneled for them.
That said, he isn’t entirely alone in his efforts. The Pacers also run specific actions around him that are designed to create multiple options and enhance his springboard routine. Take this old favorite from the Lance Stephenson-era, for example. See how Cory Joseph is setting the ball screen so that Sabonis can snag the dropped defender? That’s allowing Lance to build up a head of steam with shooters in both corners.
Two years later, the same runway is now being deployed for McConnell’s pogo stick twos, but with one key differece: either Justin Holiday or Doug McDermott sets the initial pick.
As a result, instead of Eric Bledsoe having the leeway to muck up the path of Sabonis as the roller with Jason Terry committing to the ball in a trail, like so...
...The shooter’s defender is staying home, which means Sabonis has the option to dive into space against a smaller defender or free up McConnell to pull-up from two with Vucevic backpedaling, as was the case here.
Still, McConnell is crafty, especially when it comes to subverting plays.
Take this possessions against the Wizards, for example. The Pacers are set-up to run twirl-stagger, a play where the player for whom the two consecutive screens are set curls around the first screen with the first screener then flipping around and flying off the second.
A staple of Indiana’s playbook this season (and last), the set is most often run with the intention of hitting the cutter on the move.
Allow T.J. Warren to demonstrate:
Except, in this case, with all eyes focused on the off-ball action (seriously, Bertans and Wagner aren’t even trying to split the difference between McDermott and the ball), McConnell seizes the opportunity to hit Ish Smith with a right-to-left cross-over and never looks back.
Granted, he missed on the driving finger-roll with contact, but going away from the play like that without a screen is still nevertheless a quick, heads-up read that Victor Oladipo could stand to take a page from once he returns to play alongside Malcolm Brogdon. Plus, getting the ball up off the glass ended up leading to second-chance points for Doug McDermott.
A similar thing happened a few nights later versus the Pistons. This is a set that the Pacers borrowed from the Mavericks to make Doug McDermott more comfortable in his transition last season. When executed as designed, the intention is for the shooter (in this case, Warren) to ghost the flex screen so as to create hesitation before revving up through the pindown for a quick-hitting three or, if necessary, a curl.
But, once again, with Warren’s defender trailing and Holiday clearing to the corner, McConnell opts to color outside the lines and instead gets his man going one way before worming his way down the lane for two.
Admittedly, as someone who has only attempted one three in 10 games and has already been stashed away in the dunker’s spot to compensate for his shortcomings away from the ball, it’s fair to question what sort of impact he’ll be able to have in a playoff setting when the offense is run more exclusively through Brogdon and Oladipo and his defender is crowding the lane.
However, at least for now, it’s impossible to talk about how the Pacers are suddenly winning in bulk while being ravaged by injuries without mentioning McConnell’s contributions. He’s the role player your favorite team told you not to worry about, and he’s thriving with self-awareness. Not only by making himself at home in the soft spots of drop coverage, but also by locating and drilling down on the holes the defense isn’t prepared for him to find.