February 17th, 2017

T.J. McConnell Is Showing Why ‘The Process’ was Useful

Orazio Cauchi @paxer89
T.J. McConnell

T.J. McConnell and Joel Embiid (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Back in 2013, the Philadelphia 76ers hired Sam Hinkie as new GM of the team, and that was the beginning of ‘The Process.’ During his three-year tenure with the Sixers, Hinkie started a full rebuild process that divided not only the fan base in Philadelphia but essentially the entire league.

The focus of ‘The Process’ was on a couple main elements: acquiring as many future assets as possible to increase the chances of finding a real superstar in the draft, and taking a chance on underestimated players giving them the possibility to grow and shine without putting too much pressure on them. Sam Hinkie is no longer in Philadelphia, replaced by Bryan Colangelo last year, but some of Hinkie’s ‘sons’ are still there, and they’re starting to show that ‘The Process’ was worth it.

One of these guys is T.J. McConnell, an undrafted point guard out of Arizona. Many scouts and executives believed that McConnell had no place in the NBA: too small, not enough athleticism and lacked a decent shooting range. But after he went undrafted in 2015, Sam Hinkie decided to take a risk on him, signing McConnell to a multi-year partially guaranteed deal, the so-called ‘Hinkie’s Special.’ McConnell went through the Summer League, training camp and surprisingly made the roster for the regular season. Despite the catastrophic season that Sixers had, with only ten wins and a lot of problems off the court, McConnell showed some real flashes of his abilities and proved that he belonged in the league.

At the beginning of this season, McConnell was projected as the third point guard on the roster, behind newly signed veteran Jerryd Bayless and Sergio Rodriguez, who left his team in Europe to join Philly. But due to the injuries to both Bayless, who is out for the season with a wrist injury, and Rodriguez, limited by ankle issues, McConnell gained the starter role on December 30th. Since then, the Sixers started to shine on the court. In January, Philadelphia finished with ten wins and five losses, including a couple of wins down the stretch that excited the Sixers fans. On January 11th McConnell hit his first NBA game-winner against the New York Knicks.

Then on February 9th, McConnell was clutch again and helped the Sixers win a road game in Orlando with just 5 seconds left on the clock.

As a starter, McConnell is averaging 8.9 points, 8.1 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game, shooting almost 50% from the court. He quickly become one of the leaders of the team, Joel Embiid described him as the most clutch player ever on Twitter.

Does Joel Embiid have a point? Well. Numbers never lie.

Plus, his relationship with Croatian rookie Dario Saric has already become a must on the internet lead by the hashtag #TrustTheFriendship.

McConnell gained every single second of his time on the court thanks to his hustle, his relentless defensive effort and his incredible level of activity. He fights through every screen and he puts so much pressure on the ball. On the offensive side, McConnell is a pretty solid example of a floor general, he loves to share the ball with his teammates, he runs the pick & roll very effectively and knows how to keep the dribble alive also in a packed situation.

In the video below you can see McConnell’s mentality: after a made shot by his team, he remains close to the sideline, surprises his opponent, steals the ball and finds open Nik Stauskas for a three-pointer. One could say he’s ‘gritty’.

That’s what T.J. McConnell does, that’s what helped him to get the starting job. Offensively, McConnell is not even close to the level of talent of a Sergio Rodriguez, but his defensive abilities are too important for the Sixers, they’re just a better overall team when he’s on the court with Stauskas, Covington, Ilyasova and Saric, the most productive lineup of the team so far. The fact that McConnell is giving this kind of production to the team is already a victory for the Sixers.

T.J. will never be a superstar, he’ll never become a reliable shooter, but his numbers showed that he has made significant improvements and that the decision to sign him as an undrafted player back in 2015 was the right by former GM and Master of The Process Sam Hinkie. Even the reigning NBA champions Cleveland Cavaliers showed interest in McConnell a couple of weeks ago with the hope of finding a backup PG that would have helped Kyrie Irving to rest a little bit during this long regular season. But Sixers reportedly turned down the less-than-steller offer from Cleveland of a future second-round pick and reserve wingman Jordan McRae, a former Sixer himself.

Players like T.J. McConnell, or even Robert Covington, are living proof that ‘The Process,’ like it or not, was at least useful because it helped the team in finding underrated players, which in other situations the players most likely wouldn’t have the chance to prove that they belong in the league. They proved a lot of people wrong, they improved and showed that they could stay in the league and be useful rotation players for their team.

Many people may not agree with the aggressive ‘tanking’ strategy that Sam Hinkie used during his tenure in Philadelphia, a lot of executives around the league believe that Hinkie lost his job mainly because of his lack of availability to the media, especially during difficult moments like Jahlil Okafor’s fight in Boston last season. But the former Sixers GM really worked hard to find those ‘diamonds in the rough’ and T.J. is the perfect example of that kind of player.

Hinkie gave him the chance to show his game in the league and McConnell used it at best, gaining a starter role in the Sixers and drawing the trade interest from the reigning NBA champions. In many ways McConnell’s path is very similar to that of Matthew Dellavedova, another very underrated PG that proved a lot of people wrong in Cleveland, winning an NBA title and then signing a $38.5 million free-agent deal with the Milwaukee Bucks this past summer.

Joel Embiid may be the face of ‘The Process, really ‘ but a guy like T.J. McConnell represents what ‘The Process’ embodied. In a hypothetical world without Otto Porter or Nikola Jokic, McConnell will definitely be a serious candidate for Most Improved Player of the League or, as I prefer, Most Unexpected Player of The League.

Sam Hinkie is no longer in the league, but his ‘sons’ are keeping ‘The Process’ alive.

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