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On the method in T.J. McConnell’s craftiness

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And all the ways he avoids being undertaken by unders.

Indiana Pacers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Buzzing here, there, and everywhere, much of what T.J. McConnell does on a basketball court mirrors the chaotic flying pattern of a bumblebee. From probing for passing angles to playing the role of full-court pest, the plucky guard gives and takes away in the most literal sense of the words, snatching steals while also keeping the offense moving. And yet, his flurry of erratic movements, zig-zagging this way and that, also applies to his own ability to put the ball through the hoop, a skill which was on full display against the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday, when he scored 18 points, including six in overtime, and proceeded to talk his trash, letting us all know that, “this is what he (bleeping) does.”

To be fair, he isn’t wrong. On the season, he’s shot 57 percent on shots in the non-restricted area — the third best mark among the 144 players with at least 100 attempts in that range, per NBA.com’s John Schuhmann. More interesting, though, for a player who takes floaters as jumpers, is how he does what he does — particularly with regard to getting to his spots, when defenders, who, per Synergy, duck under on 37 percent of his ball-screens, make every effort to cut off his driving opportunities and induce longer shots.

Turns out, although it may appear as though his non-stop movement is generating production out of happenstance, there’s a lot of method in his craftiness, both with regard to set actions as well as his own set-up of those actions.

Sideline attacks

It isn’t a skyhook or up-and-under, and watching it may make your calf muscles burn as he plants his inside foot and squares his chest to the basket in mid-air, but winding up into jump-shots on the baseline is T.J. McConnell’s signature move. Last season, he could oftentimes be seen snaking across the lane, driving hard from left to right, to tunnel his way to that spot on the court. Now, the Pacers lean into it, running plays designed for him to attack sideline, rather than always middle, that give him a head start on his defender.

For instance, nary a game goes by that the Pacers don’t connect down screens to chase actions on the right side of the floor for him to glide downhill. Here’s why it works: Look at P.J. Dozier’s body angle, here, when his check — Malcolm Brogdon — runs off the down screen and tosses the ball back to McConnell.

See how he’s facing away from Myles Turner? That makes a switch unlikely and requires him to detach from Brogdon so that Monte Morris can have space to stay with McConnell. There’s just one problem. Even without making much contact on the ensuing screen, that subtle side-to-side pretext is all it takes for McConnell, in chasing his own pass, to get a step on Morris, compelling Nikola Jokic to engage on the baseline without fully taking it away. From there, due to the risk of leaving Turner all alone under the basket, McConnell has all the space he needs to motor to the other side of the rim and pivot into his shot, as Michael Porter Jr. retreats to protect the corner.

That said, similar scenarios have played out for opponents who manage to trade assignments on the pass-back. Here, Miye Oni calls out the switch with Jordan Clarkson, but still ultimately gets snagged by the screen, forcing Rudy Gobert to concede the baseline, with Goga Bitadze crashing to the basket.

The result? Another corkscrew two.

And that’s with relatively well played defense. Ask Derrick White and DeJounte Murray what happens when the pass-back switch gets miscommunicated.

Whoops.

Switch the screen, however, and he’ll just jostle the big with a hesitation dribble, circling around to the front of the basket, with his original assignment trailing on the switch-back.

So, what about ducking under on the ball-screen, without switching? That will work, right? Nah, then the angle just allows him to get to his spot, playing hip-to-hip on a straight line and underscoring the benefit of being able to spring into jump-shots from close range. After all, Immanuel Quickly beats McConnell to the rim on this possession, but fails to prevent the plucky guard from getting off a shot, where a layup likely would’ve been returned to sender.

Of course, lose the lopsided footrace and he’s happy to oblige with a regular old shot off the window.

All of which is to say that, unless the baseline gets walled off, which allows him to dish passes to the screener, it takes a special defender — with unique size and strength for position as well as the ability to sniff out the play before it happens — to repel McConnell outside the arc, as Jrue Holiday demonstrates, here, by hugging the screener.

Exit screens

Everything about this sideline play is delightful. Don’t get it twisted. Malcolm Brogdon is setting a screen along the baseline with the intention of freeing Justin Holiday for a three cutting to the corner, but when Duncan Robinson shoots the gap, watch T.J. McConnell.

Can’t duck under a screen if there is no screen, right? Granted, Tyler Herro isn’t exactly known for being a hardnosed defender, but credit the in-and-out dribble for powering him to the basket. Plus, notice how the corner pin-in screen also has the potential to act like an escape hatch. Why? Because with Justin exiting to the other side of the floor, you know who else goes with him? The help defender.

In this case, Sabonis lifts to the free throw line, clearing extra room for the drive, but there’s broader utility there for him to roll to the rim, free of a tagger, with LeVert moving from the corner to the wing, in the event a screen was needed.

Lift hesitation

Of course, while not a pull-up two, what that play against the Heat goes to show is that McConnell’s subtle, yet whip-smart, dribble package is somewhat underrated. In fact, part of the reason why he’s so often able to outrun his defender with the ball in his hands is because of how he sets up and navigates the pick-and-roll, while working angles to ram his man into re-screens.

Or, improving attack angles by creating space, lifting away with subtle micro-movements, against on-ball defenders who have no intention of fighting over.

Shallow screens

One other trick of the trade that runs contrary to the emphasis on the three-point line? Rather than setting a high screen in transition, as many teams will for guards to pull-up from distance, look at what Sabonis does as an obstruction on this possession in Brooklyn.

Carving out room for a point guard who has taken exactly eight off-the-dribble threes this season, the lefty big man pins Kyrie Irving so deep that ducking under would literally result in being under the basket.

Overall, it isn’t perfect. As was evident during the six-minute scoring draught against Miami, opponents still stray away from McConnell when he doesn’t have the ball, which can be debilitating in the absence of cutting, but there’s a reason he’s played nearly half of the team’s clutch minutes this season. On top of snatching the ball away from opponents and slinging passes to his teammates, he knows how to get to his spots, even while being prioritized as a driver. Amid a short-handed season that has seen the offense get short-circuited by unders while steered by other handlers, it matters — particularly for lightening Malcolm Brogdon’s load — that this, whether scoring or more often passing, is what T.J. McConnell does.