“Wow. Our backup point guard is the most unathletic player in NBA history.” That’s what I said the first time I saw Timothy John McConnell Jr. play in a regular season game for the 2016 Philadelphia 76ers. That infamous team finished with a record of 10-72, and at the time, I believed that T.J. was a major reason why. He was slow. He couldn’t shoot threes. He had no vertical. He got killed in the post when he switched onto forwards. The only things that he contributed were defensive hustle and the occasional creative pass. Outside of those facets of his game, I thought of him as Hinkie’s most blatant tanking ploy yet. My Dad and I openly complained that it was a disgrace for T.J. to make an NBA roster while Ohio St. legend Aaron Craft was relegated to overseas’ play. In our eyes, Craft was the exact same player as T.J., only with much better defensive contributions.
I’m so glad we were wrong. Three years later, and T.J. remains as the last man standing from that atrocious 2016 roster. Sure, some of the other guys on that team have roles in the league and are probably better all around players. Robert Covington improved enough to be the Timberwolves’ main return in the Jimmy Butler trade. Despite their horrendous play in Philadelphia, Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel have developed into decent rotation players on good teams. Ish Smith was the Sixers’ most important player in 2016 and just landed another job as a starter for the Wizards. Yet no one, and I mean no one, gave the Sixers more value than T.J. McConnell.
T.J. quickly grew on me during the following season of 2017–the debut of Joel Embiid. Maybe it was all that losing that blinded me to T.J.’s greatness. The Sixers weren’t stellar in 2017, losing their first eight games and finishing the season with a blah 28-54 record. However, they had a sensational mid-season stretch during which they went 10-3, highlighted by two games that are famous among Sixers fans. One was the 94-89 win over the Toronto Raptors in which Embiid blocked the crap out of Kyle Lowry in the final minute of the game and the Wells Fargo Center erupted like the Colosseum as a gladiator was devoured by a lion. The other was a come from behind victory over the rival New York Knicks. With the Knicks up one and under ten seconds left on the clock, Porzingis air-balled a corner three that was picked up by Gerald Henderson who pushed the ball up the court. Henderson flipped it back to Illyasova who then found a streaking McConnell on the left baseline. At the moment T.J. caught that pass, Embiid had looped around him to the corner, and I remember screaming at the television, “Pass it to Embiid, T.J.!!!!!!” He did not pass it to Embiid. In fact, T.J. didn’t pass it to anyone. He instead took one dribble left toward the basket, gave a small push off to Carmelo Anthony, then spun back right to shoot a fade away 15 foot jumper that both Melo and Porzingis contested.
I want you to think about that for a second. T.J., who is generously listed at 6’2″, took an off the dribble jump shot during which he had to contort his body over 6’8″ Carmelo Anthony and 7’3″ Kristaps Porzingis. But here’s where the the secret sauce of T.J. McConnell comes in, just one of the little things he does that makes him better than guys who couldn’t make the NBA like Aaron Craft. Whenever T.J. shoots a pull up jumper, he lifts off the ground then waits till the highest point of his jump to ensure that he can get his shot off despite his limited height and explosiveness. It’s not even that T.J. jumps particularly high, but he seems to hang in mid air longer than anyone I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen him make that pull up, loop around 15 footer hundreds of times over the last few years, and the amount of times I’ve seen him miss is probably lower than 20.
Back to 2017. T.J. releases that baseline jumper, and I had a brief moment of grief as I was convinced his shot had no chance of going in. Being T.J., it of course rolled calmly through the net to give the Sixers a 98-97 win. Hysteria then consumed the arena as T.J. sprinted around the court with his fist in the air, and later we were treated to a brilliant photo of Joel Embiid not only hugging T.J. but accidentally choking with his gargantuan hands in the process (no pun intended).
From that moment on, I believed. I could go on for ages with detailed stories of my T.J. memories, such as his game winner over the Magic just two weeks later, the 20 point butt-kicking he gave Boston in game four 2018, and even his Summer League duel with D’Angelo Russell. Maybe my story with T.J. would be better if I had trusted him from the start, instead of hopping on his bandwagon, but I actually think my relationship with undersized, scrappy point guard represents who he is. I had no belief in him at all and only saw use in him as someone I could disparage on for cheap comedy. But T.J. made me believe. He worked so hard, checked opposing guards the whole 94 feet so many times, and just did every little thing that symbolizes the uniting purpose of basketball.
T.J. is never going to be an NBA star. He only made 83 three pointers in four years in Philadelphia, and he’s still to small and slow to avoid being attacked in playoff basketball. Those are two of the reasons Brett benched him against the Raptors in May (a decision that in hindsight looks like a mistake). But T.J. proved that he’s going to be just fine, that he has a real career in this whole basketball thing. He’ll probably never know it, but T.J. McConnell really has become one of my inspirations and by far my all time favorite basketball player.
And now, as T.J. embarks on a new NBA journey as a member of the Indiana Pacers, I wish him nothing but the best. I bet every Indiana fan will come to adore his heart, grit, and intelligence very soon. But no matter who he plays for or even how long he plays for another franchise, T.J. will always be a member of the Philadelphia 76ers in my heart.