T.J. McConnell carved out an NBA niche by never backing down

Every NBA athlete can remember their welcome to the league moment. A jarring and often wide-eyed affirmation that their rookie rubber has really and truly hit the NBA road. But there’s another almost as universal moment among players from the last decade; less jarring, if sometimes annoying, and maybe a little more special.

Jimmy Butler’s came after he was elbowed in the face by Alex Len.

It was during a January 2019 game against the Hawks, when Butler was with the Sixers. Butler was guarding Len under the rim, who went up for a bunny-hop basket and, let’s say not totally unaware, swung the sharp knob of his elbow around into Butler’s cheek and chin. Before Butler’s body had even finished falling across the bright blue paint of the Sixers’ key, two small hands hooked into the armpits of his 6’7, 230-pound frame and began hauling his body backward across the floor.

“First I’m like, man, who the hell is grabbing me?” Butler recalls. He put up some resistance, squirming his body to break out of the hold, until he looked up and saw who it was that had him. “And then I look up and it’s T.J. smiling like, Yo, I got you. Don’t even worry about it, man. Don’t even trip.

Butler’s face relaxes, his body goes slack. He seems to lean harder into the arms of T.J. McConnell, who drags him a few more steps for good measure and then helps Butler onto his feet. Len even circles back, let’s say not totally innocently, but Butler barely notices and walks away beside McConnell.

“Right then, right there, I calmed down and let it go. I was like, shit, T.J. got my back. I know I’m good,” Butler says.

These “Welcome from T.J. McConnell’’ moments are prevalent across the league, and most guys can remember them as clearly as their harsher NBA introductions. It has as much to do with McConnell’s competitive engine, a seemingly indefatigable force, as it does his personal energy, a similarly inexhaustible resource. Joel Embiid “loves him.” So does Ben Simmons. Former Pacers coach Nate McMillan called him “sunshine,” while current Pacers coach, Rick Carlisle, has referred to him as “one of the great competitors in the history of the franchise,” an “indomitable spirit” and a “once-in-a-decade type player.” Tyrese Haliburton called him one of the best, if not the best, backup point guards in the league, while Spencer Dinwiddie neatly summed him up with “Oh no.” Josh Hart said — not unkindly — of McConnell’s tenacity, “You can’t just win, you gotta kill him. He’s not going to stop” and most recently, LeBron James called him one of his favorite players right now, “He’s like Draymond [Green] as a point guard.”

That fans of the NBA at large (and potentially James) are catching up on the many merits of McConnell likely has to do with his spirited performance in the inaugural Play-In Tournament earlier this season, and is definitely related to his tide-turning sequences of defensive diligence, offensive spontaneity, and general frenetic aura on the floor during the Pacers playoff run thus far. What longtime friends — and McConnell himself — will tell you is that in his ninth NBA season, he hasn’t been doing anything differently than he always has. He’s even mentally sequestered a feeling from his early career to ensure it.

“It’s going to sound silly,” McConnel explains, “but I have a chip on my shoulder where I don’t belong.” He stresses that he knows he belongs, but conjures up the weight of the chip, and the mindset that formed it, to compete as hard as he can.

“I use what got me to the NBA,” he says, “that’s the thing I never lost. And I will never lose. And if I do, I think it’s time for me to retire.”

Indiana Pacers v Miami Heat

T.J. McConnell’s mentality with the Sixers endeared him to now-former-teammate Jimmy Butler for years (and teams) to come.
Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

When McConnell first made the 76ers roster in 2015, he turned to then-teammate JJ Redick when the two were out for a bite after practice and half-marveled, half-deadpanned, that he wasn’t supposed to be there. He meant the NBA. But after getting in at ground level of The Process, helping build a young Indiana team to playoff contention, and now playing in a career-first Eastern Conference Finals, it would be fair to assume that feeling would have gone away.

But it hasn’t. At least not completely.

“Maybe after my second, or this past contract, it really settled in,” McConnell says, about feeling like an outsider. “But I try to play like I don’t belong and that people don’t think I belong, and it just gets me to play harder.”

After the uncertain route McConnell took to even get a finger into the slightly cracked window of the NBA, his reticence to relax makes sense. When he first started to play for Duquesne, an angry fan emailed then-coach Ron Everhart with the dig, “I didn’t realize we were recruiting water boys.” Everhart showed the email to McConnell and his dad, Tim, the next time he saw them, and McConnell said, “I’ll show them who the waterboy is!’”

Duquesne hosted March Madness at the end of McConnell’s sophomore year. He and his dad went to watch some games at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ arena and McConnell remembers a light going off in his head. He knew he had one shot to keep playing basketball and he had to get on a bigger stage to do it. After a few recruiting visits, McConnell chose Arizona (the fact that their coach was also a point guard from Pittsburgh helped). For how impactful it came to be in McConnell’s development, leaving Duquesne — specifically Everhart, the person who gave him his first shot — was a hard decision he still thinks about, but the right one.

McConnell spent his first year as a Wildcat redshirting because of the old NCAA transfer rules. He credits that stretch in helping him acclimate, not just to life outside Pittsburgh for the first time, but to the team playbook and his own conditioning which, he realized, was lousy. The Wildcats made it to back-to-back Elite Eight appearances in McConnell’s last two years (a squad he shared with future first-round picks Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson), and as the guys around him got ready for the NBA Draft, McConnell felt the same urgent pull that brought him to Arizona.

Just days ahead of the 2015 NBA Combine, McConnell got a call from his agent, who told him to get to Chicago. McConnell had to pay his way there and was only going to get a shot if someone dropped out, which at 7 a.m. the morning of, happened. He remembers wanting to skip past the biometrics right to the 5-on-5 scrimmaging, noting that nobody was going to pick him for his negative wingspan and “hands the size of an infant.” He had a few workouts afterward, but on the big night went undrafted. Thirty seconds after the Draft, Former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie and former Sixers head coach Brett Brown called. Intrigued by what they’d seen, they invited him to training camp. He’d be one of six guards vying for a spot.

“Nobody even anticipated him making the team,” Chris Babcock, a former player development coach with the Sixers, says. “It’s the hardest position to get yourself into the NBA. There’s a lot of guards. There’s not a lot of centers. It’s very competitive.”

McConnell played in both the Salt Lake City and Las Vegas Summer Leagues ahead of his first season — a frenetic pace of games that matched up with him well — and stood out enough at training camp that multiple levels of the organization had designs on him.

“When I met him, I was the head coach of the Sixers G League team. We brought him to training camp and there were a number of guys competing for one of the last point guard position spots. And so the whole time I’m thinking, Oh man, this is great. This is gonna be my point guard in the G League. He’s the perfect point guard to have in that kind of league,” Kevin Young, a former assistant with the Sixers, says.

“T.J. was playing well in camp, Brett Brown was the coach and he was saying, ‘Man, this McConnell kid. He’s pretty good.’ And I’d always be like, ‘Yeah, you know, the other point guards are all playing really well!’ Just trying to sandbag T.J. so I could have him as my starting point guard,” Young chuckles.

Young didn’t get his perfect G League PG, but McConnell landed a contract with the Sixers. He’d be one of the oldest players on the team in his rookie year. There was a quiet moment of celebration when McConnell called his wife, Valerie, and his dad, Tim, who had been his high school coach, to tell them the news, but the relief was short-lived.

“He was still on a non-guaranteed contract,” Babcock explains, “So there are trigger dates all the time of what the next part of it [will be] guaranteed. The situation of our team, which people kinda don’t know, every trigger date was basically, he had to remake the team to solidify his guaranteed contract. It pushed him a lot, it was extremely stressful, as you can imagine. In a good and bad way, he had to constantly prove himself.”

The niches McConnell carved out for himself have become calling cards, and a palpable point of irritation for opposing teams. One is picking off lazy, slow, bad, and even perfectly good passes, the other is picking up his defensive assignment full court.

For the passes, which Babcock notes he is “notorious for” and features in opponent scouting reports as “‘Randomly he will steal inbounds passes’” McConnell uses an innate sense of timing. Both Young and Babcock call the skill instinctual, McConnell will tell you it’s just a feel thing he’s picked up. Still, to have led the league in steals for an entire season, and have fan-made compilations of 54 stolen in-bound passes, or to inspire YouTube videos titled “T.J. McConnell Making NBA Players Look Dumb,” there’s something else at work.

“Are they lackadaisical? Are they gonna throw a soft pass and I’m able to step in the passing lane?” McConnell tries his best to elaborate on the operation, noting he’ll also sometimes chat with guys inbounding to see if they relax their guard a little. Asked if there are people he’s now able to read like a book, and McConnell demurs. Pressed, given the 54 stolen inbound pass video proof, he diplomatically offers, “If you say there’s a couple players that are in there quite a bit, I guess the opportunity just presents itself more with them.”

Dallas Mavericks v Indiana Pacers

T.J. McConnell has never been afraid to force stars to get down to his level, hitting the deck for loose balls.
Photo by AJ Mast/NBAE via Getty Images

What’s not diplomatic is McConnell’s other niche, picking up the person tasked with bringing the ball up the first few steps they’re on the floor. Watch the faces of players McConnell picks up and see them instantly strain under a psychic Sisyphean weight; watch McConnell’s face and see it light up with menace. Redick has noted these are the moments McConnell “blacks out”.

“[Chris Babcock] straight up said to me, ‘Look, you’re not physically imposing, you’re not gonna blow by people with your speed’ — I mean, I feel like I’m quick — ‘but to stand out, no one picks people up full court, and you have to do that to create a niche for yourself in this league,’” McConnell says. “I give him 100% credit for me doing that.”

The two started adding full-court scrimmages on top of team workouts, twice, sometimes three times a day. McConnell deployed his new signature move immediately.

“Nobody wants someone, like, climbing them for 94 feet,” Babcock says, “Especially if it’s game five of the regular season, a veteran player is hoping to just have a normal game five of an NBA season, but T.J.’s trying to literally not let him bring the ball up at all costs.”

“You can’t always control if you’re gonna be making or missing shots,” Babcock continues, “but it was something that he could do every single time on the floor that coaching staff could count on, and can change the momentum of the game.”

McConnell says he does it sometimes just to shave a couple seconds off the shot-clock, shortening the defensive sequence for his team.

“When I see someone drop their head, or hate that I’m doing it, it kinda fuels me to do it more ’cause I know it bothers them so much. I wanna make their night as tough as possible,” he says.

It’s one of the reasons Butler found it so entertaining to play with McConnell in their time with the Sixers, seeing the stricken looks night after night on the other end of the court. Playing against him now, Butler is more pragmatic.

“I can only imagine what’s going on in the opposing team’s head, if you’re dribbling that ball up the court, he’s hounding you 94 feet?” Butler recalls, a notch of pride in his voice. “I let him know anytime we play against each other, do not pick me up full court. ‘Cause you ain’t even gotta worry about me wasting my energy trying to get the ball up the court, I’m just gonna pass it. And I’m gonna run up the sideline. No shame in my game, not trying to deal with you, T.J.”

The NBA, it’s been known to be said, is a copycat league, and it’s true down to every last niche.

“I see people do it more and more now, especially young guys,” McConnell says, “It’s almost a sense of pride when someone picks me up full court. It’s like, okay, I tip my hat to you, someone’s doing this now.”

As funny as it was for Butler to see McConnell get into their opponent’s heads, he recognizes the deeper and oftentimes game-altering value that niche move brought.

“Whenever you’re leading by example on the defensive end and you’re picking up full court — now, that don’t mean I’m gonna pick up full court, I’m not doing it — but it means I’m gonna do everything that I’m capable of within my wheelhouse on the defensive end: playing in the passing lane, staying in between my man and the ball and the basket, playing defense without fouling like he does,” Butler says.

“Seeing him do that full court, it’s like, I’m not gonna let this possession be wasted. He just picked this guy up full court, turned him five times, made him pass the ball to my guy. I’m not gonna let my guy score, I’m not gonna let my teammate down,” Butler continues. “Playing that hard, that long full court, it just goes down the line. Like, if he can do that, I gotta do my part. And then the next guy has to do his part. And I don’t even know if he realizes that, but he really ignites defenses. He gives guys so much confidence and he’s the leader without having to say too much. ‘Cause he leads by example in how he plays, and how hard he plays, and how he wants everybody to be successful.”

McConnell was traded to the Pacers after the Sixers were knocked out by Kawhi Leonard’s infamous Game 6 Semifinals shot. Brown would last one more season but the rocket booster team that launched The Process was effectively dismantled. McConnell credits Philadelphia being in a total rebuild phase as the reason he got a shot at the NBA, with the front office looking for sparks in plenty of rotating personnel (maybe best underscored by Bryan Colangelo, who had a short tenure himself, asking at the start of McConnell’s second season what an assistant coach was doing playing pickup when he saw him scrimmaging), but Babcock stresses that it was all McConnell.

“I don’t think people fully understand. He was literally the sixth guard fighting for two spots,” Babcock reiterates, “in the NBA world, you have such a short time to try to win that spot. It was incredible that he actually did that and then hung on, and then somehow kept hanging on.”

2024 NBA Playoffs - Milwaukee Bucks v Indiana Pacers

When NBA stars see T.J. McConnell down in a defensive stance, ready to hound them 94 feet, they know it’s going to be a long night.
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Ask McConnell’s admirers to describe the way he plays, and the word “gritty” is going to get used. He knows it’s a compliment, and is thankful, but it can feel like a cop-out, a flattening.

“I feel like I’m much more than gritty, tough-nosed — I know I am those things, but I feel like I’m more than that, you know what I’m saying?” McConnell says, adding, “Not in an arrogant way.”

It is difficult to describe McConnell. In terms of quantifying his impact, we can account for steals, but the rest, with an on-court presence that ranges from eerily, almost artfully sorcerous to the most belligerent pickup game of your life, is tough to pin down through game numbers alone. Butler tried his best, offering “fierce” and “pest”, clarifying the latter with “only because no matter what team I’ve been on, or even if I was on his team, what the opposing team says about him is one thing you have to respect, like, ‘Damn that motherf—er’s a little pest.’ He’s everywhere on the floor and he never runs out of energy.”

Once, McConnell relied on the margins — the driving lanes, the base and sidelines, the Wild West niche of picking up from 94 feet — now he exists everywhere on the floor. He’s an intuitive passer, his quiet scoring games tend to be paired with double-digit assist nights. He’s a devastating pick and roll player, and however he gets the ball, not many can pry it from his hands when he comes scorching and ricocheting down the floor like a lightning strike — McConnell led the league in drives per 100 possessions for most of the season, only trailed by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

“It just makes me smile knowing that he’s on everybody’s scouting report, and they act like my boy can’t shoot the ball,” Butler chuckles ruefully. “He can shoot the ball, he can pass the ball, he can finish. He’s just smart, man. He’s got a lot of what people don’t have. He’s got pride, he’s got heart, he’s got a winning mentality. He’s a winning player, man. I ain’t gonna lie to you, I wish he was still on my team.”

Babcock says McConnell’s made a habit of picking people’s brains, at first to fill in his own developmental gaps, then for genuine interest. It’s how he developed a relationship with Steve Nash, who he can emulate on his drives.

“Him and I went and worked with [Nash] one summer, which was obviously phenomenal for his game,” Babcock says. “One of the times T.J. went to work with him, Steve said there was somebody else that was going to be there, and it was Kevin Durant. It was kind of the odd duo.”

Young and Babcock both use what might be the best word to describe McConnell: connector. Butler echoed it in the way McConnell’s able to send energy down the line to all of his teammates in a game, and it’s been evident in a Pacers team that refuses to quit in an unlikely playoffs run — a sixth-seeded team now in the Eastern Conference Finals. Where it’s most apt though, is in the conduit McConnell is for so many in the league. Young recalled a regular coffee club McConnell started in Philly with Dario Saric and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot, when the two were new to the States and trying their best to acclimatize to it, and to the NBA. He also said when it comes to talking to teammates or other players, it doesn’t matter their stature in the league, McConnell can talk to everyone “as good or better than anybody.”

“It speaks to his awareness of how he can connect with different teammates, different guys that are from different backgrounds. Every player, I think, that has played with him really likes him,” Young says, noting the first thing T.J. Warren (now with the Wolves) asked Young when he re-signed with the Suns, learning Young was a coach in Philly, had been: “‘Was T.J. McConnell there?’ He was like, ‘That’s my guy.’”

Asked why it seems guys who’ve been labeled intense or difficult also tend to gravitate toward McConnell, and Butler notes, “You’re spot on. You really respect guys that go about the game the right way,” he says, listing Embiid and himself, McConnell, guys like Kyle Lowry, “We play this game to win. I think that’s one thing that we all have in common, which is why we respect each other on such a high level.”

“That’s why you stack as many players as you can like T.J. because he’s gonna do whatever you ask him to do. If you ask him to knock down threes, he’s gonna find a way to do it. You ask him to pick up full court, he’s gonna find a way to do it. If you ask him to guard Joel Embiid, I don’t know how the hell he would do it, but I guarantee T.J. would find a way,” Butler continues. “That’s why I hope he’s a champion one day. And that’s why he’ll always and forever be one of my favorite teammates.”

Being such a perennial conduit, there’s the question of what happens when McConnell feels tapped out, or has a bad day, or how it is he recharges himself. Young points out that McConnell realized early the value of energy guys who are able to be the same person and bring it every day, but it was “something T.J. honestly had to grow into.” Part of what makes McConnell so tireless are his emotions, they’re the bedrock of that everlasting chip on his shoulder, but he had to figure out how to regulate them.

Babcock recalled a game when McConnell, still playing for the Sixers, was subbed out. Back on the bench, McConnell was heated – mostly at himself. After waiting a few seconds, then-Sixers associate head coach Mike D’Antoni turned to McConnell and asked in his signature dry deadpan, “Not your best three minutes?” It broke through McConnell’s frustration and calmed him down immediately, mostly because he couldn’t help cracking a smile.

A sense of humor helps. McConnell’s mic’d up moments, like telling former teammate Mike Scott, “You ain’t about this, go back down there” and asking Furkan Korkmaz if he lost a bet wearing bright green shoes, are top-tier, even if he admits to playing them up, “If you can’t make fun of yourself,” he says, “I feel like you have to just be able to laugh at yourself.”

Butler shared a favorite example of McConnell knowing when to be in on the joke when the joke was him. Most people are familiar with Butler’s competitive spirit extending beyond the floor in heated games of cards and dominoes. Before a Sixers team flight, Butler pulled bands of hundred-dollar bills from his bag and told McConnell to pose with a stack to his ear, like he was talking on the phone. “I just remember him like, ‘Yo, this is so awkward’, cause he would never think of doing something like that. And I told him, we’re not getting on this plane until you take a picture of you holding this money up to your ear.”

Family has also helped. His own entry into fatherhood and, as Babcock jokes, being part of a Pittsburgh “McConnell Hall of Fame.” Beyond his dad, his brother and sister played high-level basketball, as did his aunts, Kathy McConnell-Miller and Suzie McConnell-Serio, both of whom went on to coach at the college level. McConnell Serio also won gold and bronze medals in the Olympics, and played and coached in the WNBA. McConnell recalls that as hard as his dad was on him as a coach, twice as hard as any of his teammates got it, when he got to college and eventually the pros, Tim switched immediately back to just being his dad, endlessly supportive. Plenty of pros grow up alongside basketball, but not many have it as such a metronomic force to their lives, interlaced as an organ. It’s probably why none of it seems like such a big deal to McConnell, because the switch between life and basketball, if a fine line, has always been intuitive.

But these are still guesses, because McConnell has only ever seen his own energy as a sure thing.

“I’m so caught up in the competition of the game,” he says, “I just have this thing where it’s like, you can control how hard you play. So if you can’t give a hundred percent, what are we even doing? That’s the one thing that I feel like you have full control of.”

Butler echoes him, but goes further, saying McConnell’s mastered his never-ending energy loop by always feeding it – it’s his consistency that keeps it going.

“Win 10 games in a row, this is what I’m gonna do. Lose 10 games in a row, this is what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna keep that same energy because he knows that’s what he can fall back on,” Butler says. “That’s his consistent mechanism of, ‘Look, I’m still going to be me and I’m gonna do everything in my power to make sure that we win.’ And I think that’s where his energy stems from.”

While the Pacers’ season might be on the line, McConnell’s longevity in the league has never been more assured. From a strictly technical standpoint, as Young points out, backup point guards are one of the most necessary and difficult positions to fill in the NBA. It’s a role that has to thrive under pressure and organize stretches of chaos into short and controlled bursts of triumph, which McConnell, who once had a career year in a simultaneous contract, Covid-shortened, and new dad season, clearly relishes.

2024 NBA Playoffs - Milwaukee Bucks v Indiana Pacers

Type “T.J. McConnell hug” into Getty Images, and one will find countless photos of teammates appreciating his unique contributions with a warm embrace.
Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

At a more human level, McConnell’s said he’ll play as long as a team wants him, which is good news since it seems like the league would revolt if he wasn’t in it. Every person who talks about him wants to do it at length, wants to know who else you spoke to about him, and has a recommendation of at least five other people who’d want to do the same. Carlisle admitted he broke down in tears earlier this season when he had to tell McConnell he’d be playing a reserve role for Indiana, just because of how amenably and supportively McConnell took the news. It’s not anything he hasn’t been doing all along; from his precarious start, to saying postgame how happy he was for his friend Oshae Brissett in the Celtics win when Indiana went down 2-0, McConnell is a silver-lining machine. His outlook is so often the inverse of how most people frame a situation (he once told Duncan Robinson, “It takes a lot of energy to be a bad person”) that within the game and well beyond it, McConnell proves that a slow burn of positivity, generosity and yes — unfortunately — grit, goes farther in a world convinced the fastest way to get ahead is by turning inward. What’s better is how he proves operating that way is no big deal.

All the way back during Butler’s near-beatific moment, when McConnell dragged him from the brink (or just from a technical foul if he’d decided to engage with Len) his thought process was similarly straightforward.

“Anyone that happens to, I don’t think they’re going to be very pleased about it. In that moment I just grabbed him and, it sounds bad, but tried to drag him — ‘cause he was on the floor — drag him away from the situation, because we needed him to win. I also wanted to try to save him some money,” McConnell chuckles. “He’s pretty rich, he didn’t need me to save him any money, but for us to win, he needs to be on the floor.”

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