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TJ McConnell’s Free Agency & the Power of Pull-Up Shooting with Marcus Zegarowski

Ohio v Creighton Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It’s been 57 days since the Indiana Pacers have played basketball, the NBA Finals may be over as soon as Wednesday, the draft takes place in 12 days, and Free Agency begins less than a week afterwards on August 2nd. While there’s still quite some time before next season starts, the mechanisms of the NBA machine never stop whirring.

As the front office has already planted the seeds for change with a near total overhaul of the coaching staff, there are still prescient questions as to what maneuvers will be made with the roster. The Pacers border on straddling the luxury tax threshold, just over $15 million under: Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, JaKarr Sampson, Cassius Stanley, as well as the 13th overall pick in this year’s draft (barring trade), account for roughly $25 million in cap holds.

Doug McDermott is more than likely to command a sizable deal in free agency. Tony East wrote a great profile on Doug’s free agency over at Forbes. While I don’t think McDermott will receive the level of contract that Joe Harris and Davis Bertans got in the 2020 off-season, I’d bank on Doug getting at minimum, the full mid-level exception: Both Derrick Favors and Jae Crowder inked 3 year contracts to the full MLE. Joe Harris is getting paid roughly $19 million per year on a 4 year contract, so I’d surmise Doug is somewhere in the middle and probably closer to the MLE itself.

This is where things get funky. If the Pacers were to pay Doug say 3/33, they’d have enough money left over to pay their first round pick and fill out the remaining roster openings with vet minimums or 2nd round picks (Which Indiana has two of).

TJ McConnell just had the best season of his professional career this past season, which makes things murky when looking at his free agency. How will his play this past season in a scheme that maximized him translate? McConnell has proven that he is a valuable NBA player, but I’m genuinely curious to see how the league views this past season from him. There are very real concerns about his ability in the half court that have hampered his playoff viability in the past.

However, I could very well see a team like Atlanta viewing McConnell as their answer as backup relief to Trae Young, especially considering the struggles they’ve had the past two seasons lacking another player who can carry the playmaking load with Young off the floor.

Presumably, TJ is going to get paid less this offseason. Do the Pacers value Doug McDermott more? Do they view him as more irreplaceable? He had an efficient stint with the Mavericks after he was acquired via trade in 2018, playing under Rick Carlisle. While it’s very unclear what direction the Pacers will go in free agency, it’s unlikely they can retain both McConnell and McDermott without going into the luxury tax.

If the front office prioritzes Doug McDermott, it’s worth noting that replacing TJ McConnell is a fruitless task. Finding a theoretical replacement is more about cutting some of the half court concerns while losing out on some of the micro skills that set TJ apart from backup guards during the season: the Pacers probably don’t make the play in without TJ McConnell.

That being said, if the team does move on from TJ, there’s a player who will likely be available to draft in the 2nd round, and he’s already worked out for and interviewed with the team.

Very few rookies ever provide an immediate positive impact on court. However, the Pacers are in a stage where they have to economically view the current state and future of the roster. I don’t have an answer in regards to how the Pacers should address the backup point guard spot on the roster, but Marcus Zegarowski would bring a premium skill to the roster: Pull-Up Shooting.

Zegarowski was an elite shooter on high volume across his 3 year career at Creighton; 42.3% on over 500 career attempts and impressively, 36% on pull-up 3’s for his career (117 attempts per InStat). He also shot 55% on pull-ups inside the arc.

Zegarowski provides the immediate ability to effectively attack multiple forms of pick and roll coverages. As we’v e seen throughout the playoffs, versatility and the ability to fluidly adapt is so key in winning at higher levels of competition.

If his defender goes under the ball screen, he can stop and pop from deep as soon as the window opens.

If the defense plays a traditional drop or even closer to centrefield as seen in the next play, Zegarowski is extremely capable of rising up after a quick read.

However, it is worth noting that he is much better going to his left than his right. He shoots with his right hand, but feels more comfortable stepping into his left to stabilize himself. Zegarowksi shot more pull-ups from the left side of the floor and significantly better on them as well (44% compared to 31% on the right side of the break), so he’ll have to work on his energy transfer going to his right.

The shot can be a little stiff stepping to his right, resulting in some misses that don’t touch rim, showing that lack of consistency. That he already is THIS good at shooting pull-ups at all though is not something that’s worth picking nits over, just an area of growth moving forward.

So what happens if he gets run off the line?

While he isn’t particularly bursty as a ballhandler, he’s quite shifty and changes directions very well. He’s easily one of the best in the draft class at keeping his dribble alive and maneuvering East/West to find advantages.

Zegarwoski is exceptional at putting his defender in jail, snaking to his spots in the mid-range, and pulling a floater

or drawing the defense while flicking up a lob.

He’s not routinely a passer who will break the defense, but he’s fantastic at staying collected, keeping his own pace, and finding the proper window that the defense gives him.

He finds the roller with ease if doubled or help is flashed.

Zegarowski is also more than capable of finding the pocket pass out of an empty side pick and roll.

While also bringing good touch on post entry passes, something the Pacers sorely lack.

TJ McConnell is an absolute master of pace, playing with a breakneck freneticism that can catch opponents off-guard. Zegarowski commands the flow of the offense and dictates the pace of game, but in a way that counters McConnell.

McConnell darts, throwing haymakers, while Zegarowski thrives off of change of direction. Throwing in stutters, hesitations, and his excellent deceleration skills to throw defenders off as he drives into and probes the paint. As mentioned, he doesn’t have elite, or even good burst frankly, which turns off initial viewers. But, his ability to maintain his dribble and use his ability to quickly shift without moving at high speeds to compensate for that lack of straight line speed.

Marcus almost reminds me of a boxer who doesn’t have great power, but always keeps his opponent on guard with constant jabs, all coming at different angles, with different speeds; an ever changing rhythm.

Zegarowski brings into question so much about in-game philosophy and roster building. TJ McConnell is unequivocally the better player now. That being said, does bringing in a player with more scalable scoring upside and ability to play off of other players on the roster and space the floor push the needle? In a vacuum, probably not, when factoring in Doug McDermott’s free agency alongside TJ’s, it certainly is worth considering.

TJ McConnell is an excpetional player, but there were some hiccups last year in terms of spacing with him on the floor. While he’s a fantastic cutter and off-ball mover, his lack of spacing ability did hamper lineups at times. Every year TJ has been in the playoffs, he’s seen a significant drop in minutes and his outright role in the rotation, not even garnerning minutes in the 4th game of the Miami series.

3-point shooting is replaceable in the right context. A stand still shooter who takes open shots, that’s easy to find. Replacing movement shooting with the ability to self-create off the catch, not so much.

It’s worth noting that Zegarowksi very well may never be a positive impact defender at the NBA level. He measured in at 6’2 with a slightly above neutral wingspan at the NBA combine. But, I think you have to take that with a grain of salt and recognize that the value he could contribute to an offense may outweigh his defensive concerns at the next level. This Pacers team needs more consistent and reliable offensive punch.

While I’m not sure that Zegarowski is the solution, he clearly offers a great deal of value moving forward, and is someone I would be shocked to not see contribute above replacement level in the league for a significant amount of time. He may not be the answer for the Pacers, but he’s certainly an option, and provides an interesting lens to view the team’s roster questions headed into the 2021 NBA season.