With Myles Turner, 23, set to enter his fifth season as the team’s only returning playoff starter from 2018-19, as well as the longest tenured player on the roster, the Pacers are about to look a whole lot different than they did just a few short months ago when they got swept at the hands of the Boston Celtics, especially until Victor Oladipo returns. In fact, according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, Indiana is one of only five teams in the league bringing back less than 45 percent of last season’s minutes. As such, in an effort to get a better handle on the team’s quietly dramatic offseason, we’re bringing back our annual offseason Q&A series to delve deeper into what each of the newest Pacers brings to the table.
McConnell joined 97.5 The Fanatic in Philly a few weeks ago and came across as genuinely sad that he wouldn’t be returning to the Sixers. Is the feeling mutual with fans? He seems like an extremely polarizing player among the Sixers-faithful.
While it was abundantly clear that McConnell’s Sixers tenure had likely run its course for very valid basketball reasons, it was still a gut punch for most to see him go. McConnell no longer makes sense with the Sixers given their personnel, and is coming off a frustrating season. But still, it hurts a lot of people to see him go. Other than the obvious gems of The Process like Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, he (and Robert Covington, for that matter) is a representative of the kind of diamond in the rough that Sam Hinkie seeked out during the years of rebuilding. He was an undrafted player whose presence on the roster itself was a stunner in his rookie season. More than any player I can remember, McConnell legitimately has gotten to this point of his career because of his hard work off the floor and an intense motor on it. Despite McConnell’s exit being entirely logical for all parties involved, there are many fans just as saddened by the break-up as TJ is.
Given that McConnell isn’t a threat to shoot off-the-dribble from deep, and he isn’t particularly effective without the ball in his hands, what does he add in value on offense when he isn’t probing or pulling-up from two? Did the Sixers do anything creative to hide his deficiencies away from the ball?
Well, that’s the conundrum with McConnell -- when he isn’t creating a good shot for a teammate or knocking down a pull-up mid-range jumper, he is a negative-impact player offensively. His seeming inability to spot-up for threes leads to him impairing the team’s floor spacing when he must coexist with another ball-handler. This was the driving force behind his exodus from Philadelphia. TJ had become a dreadful fit with a Sixers team that features a non-shooter in Ben Simmons as their primary initiator of offense. In fact, if you ask any Sixers fans for their thoughts on lineups featuring both Simmons and McConnell, you will likely get an audible groan as your answer. McConnell is a serious negative when he isn’t “doing TJ things” with the ball in his hands.
Piggybacking off of that last question, I’m assuming the Sixers would’ve preferred that McConnell be a bad three-point shooter than almost a complete non-shooter (i.e. Of players averaging at least 19 minutes per game, only Ben Simmons attempted fewer threes per game among guards last season.). Was he encouraged to pull the trigger from deep, and just didn’t, or was he expected to stay in his lane, so-to-speak?
You are absolutely right -- if TJ McConnell was, let’s say, a 35th percentile jump-shooter in terms of efficiency but was ready, willing and able to let it fly off the catch, my guess is he would still be a Sixer. The issue is that he doesn’t seem ready, willing or able to do so. If McConnell is on the wing and receives a kick-out pass, it takes him multiple seconds to load up his awkward three-point shot. Plus, despite witnessing his entire career up to this point, I have very few memories of him making three-pointers that were even lightly contested. While I’m sure the Sixers had hoped he would eventually become at least a passable shooter from beyond the arc, he failed to even become a shooter at all.
McConnell is a plucky defender, but he also got targeted quite a bit in Philadelphia’s switching scheme. Were there signs that defense may have factored into the team’s decision to not to retain him, or was it strictly about a desire to add more floor spacing and size?
My inclination is to say the team letting him walk was strictly an offense-based decision. McConnell is a legitimately good defender against players who aren’t able to physically overmatch him, but the issue is that there are many players who can overwhelm him with sheer size or athleticism alone. He can be taken advantage of as a defender, particularly in the playoffs when weaknesses are exploited to a greater degree and players who aren’t switchable have trouble staying on the court. To get back to the question at hand -- this decision seemed more inspired by gaining versatility on the offensive end than it did improving defensively, especially when looking at this new-look Sixers roster that will be absolutely monstrous defensively
Since he seems like an extremely meme-able player, I have to ask: What would you say is his most iconic play, or signature moment with the Sixers? Is there something that he does that I should just already be expecting to see in gif form?
This isn’t my personal favorite TJ McConnell moment as a Sixer, but it has to be his game-winner against the New York Knicks in January of 2017. The Sixers were playing the best basketball the city had seen in years, and McConnell was the floor general. After the Sixers stormed back in the final minutes, McConnell drained a buzzer-beating game-winner over Carmelo Anthony, released from his fingertips less than half of a second before the game clock expired. He then ran down the court, leaped into the air and pumped his fist, then nearly got choked to death by Joel Embiid. It is by far the most memorable moment of his Sixers career, a moment that truly will never be forgotten by Sixers fans.
My favorite TJism is his penchant for stealing passes in the backcourt, typically inbounds passes. After a made basket, he typically hangs back, attempting to lurk his way into coming up with a steal. And if he doesn’t force a turnover, he is ready to guard his assignment for all 94 feet.