Friday, February 10, 2017

The Curious Case Of Thomas John McConnell

Win And Run
Coming into this Sixers season, we knew a couple of things.

1) Coach Brett Brown wanted to start rookie Ben Simmons at point guard, and

2) It was probably the best idea, because the other options were a 35-year-old Spaniard, a middling free agent who might be OK, and a too-short undrafted free agent who wasn't good on defense or from the three point arc. AKA a guy who was probably putting his per diem in a cookie jar, because The Dream was going to end at any moment, and there was certainly no other NBA team that would sign his pallid ass.

Then, Simmons got hurt. The middling guy, Jerryd Bayless, came back but never looked right, and went down for the year. The Spaniard, Sergio Rodriguez, turned out to be occasionally useful, but certainly not anything that you had to give 35 minutes a game to, because, well, he was what he was. And the UDFA?

Keeps winning games with last second makes, and the team keeps looking its best when he's on the floor.

I have no real idea if TJ McConnell is anything more than a guy who has strung together some good moments in the dog days of the NBA season, or someone who is actually developing into a real NBA PG. When he has to go up against stud PGs, he suffers, but by that standard, so do a a lot of guys. His three point stroke is better, but certainly not as good as it needs to be. He tries hard on defense and has active hands, but he's just not tall or have enough of a leap to really bother people.

But man alive, does he have good instincts. And while it's totally damming him with the faintest of praise, he's the best PG that the team has had in the last five years. (There are literally dozens of guys who have had this gig, by the way. TJ beats out a gallery of swill that, at its best, includes a half season of healthy Tony Wooten, a driver who could not shoot free throws or threes, the vagabond bricklayer Michael Carter-Williams, and the mildly useful but eventually very overexposed Ish Smith. It's been ugly. Honestly, if the Lakers had just done what they were supposed to and taken Jahlil Okafor, the team would have pounced on D'Angelo Russell and been wildly more watchable for the last year and a half. But I digress.)

Tonight in Orlando, the Joel Embiid-less Sixers snapped a five game losing streak despite the starting forwards (Ersan Ilyasova, fading, and Bob Covington, still not really back after an injury) missing just about everything. They did it with defense, some threes from Rodriguez to help overcome an early hole, a career night from emerging rookie Dario Saric, and in the final two possessions after rampant shakiness, a mid-range McConnell make, then a steal. In the clutch, it was the UDFA with the game winning plays, and not the guy (Elfrid Payton, very athletic and well-scouted PG who doesn't show any signs of being anything but a guy you always lose with) they drafted in the first, then pawned off on Orlando for a first round pick and Saric, drafted two picks later.

By the way, the Saric-Payton trade? Highway robbery, and yet another moment of Sam Hinkie Died For Your Sins. But I digress.

Most telling? That McConnell pretty much ran off the floor after the two plays to end it like he was ducking a subpoena. Maybe he was just trying to avoid a replay of his game-winner in January against New York, when he broke Carmelo Anthony's ankles, then had to endure Embiid screaming at him like he was a pro wrestler.

If and when Simmons hits the floor, McConnell likely goes to the bench, and takes Rodriguez's PG2 minutes. If the rook isn't a PG, the team will probably draft one (please, Lord, guards; it's nice that Nic Stauskas and Gerald Henderson resemble NBA players now, but they don't really resemble NBA players on really good teams, and it's not as if Hendu is going to get any better than this). I still think TJ's NBA future is decades wearing suits and coaching guys, much more than the years that he'll be in a uniform.

But the nice part of these past six weeks is that a guy who tries like mad, plays the right way, and gets everything imaginable out of his meager talents is going to have years in the league, rather than weeks.

And if JJ Barea can win a ring, and Matthew Delevedova...

Well, I like McConnell a lot more than either of those guys. He's not a pocket thug. He throws a pretty great lob to the bigs. He's still also pretty damned young, and if he improves as much as he did from last year -- say, by getting that shaky three point shot right...

He might actually be more than that.

(Yeah, I know, probably not. But at least this year, you don't feel bad about rooting for him.)

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