“It was all a dream.”
“I used to read [Slam] Magazine.”
It seems like these two Biggie Smalls lyrics are the starting point of every NBA player’s story. It can certainly be applied to Arizona alum and Philadelphia 76ers point guard T.J. McConnell.
The Pittsburgh native played his first two years of his college basketball career at Duquesne University but transferred to Arizona to play under head coach and former Pitt point guard Sean Miller because of the opportunity to win a national championship.
For two years, McConnell played with two different freshman stars that would most certainly be drafted into the NBA out of high school if not for the league’s one-and-done rule. McConnell saw what NBA talent looked like first hand and was the unquestioned leader of the Wildcats when he was playing.
But even though playing in the NBA was a life long dream of his, McConnell didn’t think about it with the same clarity of his star teammates.
“I wasn’t really focused on that because I didn’t know what the future was,” McConnell said. “I certainly didn’t think that I’d be in the NBA. I kind of focused on helping [Arizona] win and getting us to a national championship.”
Both of his seasons with the Wildcats ended on a loss to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight. Unlike teammates Aaron Gordon and Stanley Johnson, who were taken in the top 10 of the first round of the NBA Draft, McConnell went undrafted and signed with the Sixers.
The 2015-16 Sixers were meant to lose. They finished with 18 wins the year before and thought that was too much, so they drafted Jahlil Okafor, brought in McConnell and started Ish Smith to ensure that they would win no more than 10 games.
If the Sixers weren’t the only team in the league blatantly trying to lose their way to lottery draft picks, McConnell would likely have been staring at a future in the G-League.
As a point guard, McConnell was seen as someone who wasn’t big enough or athletic enough to play with NBA-caliber guards but if there was one thing he could do, it was pass real well.
In the Sixers’ attempt to lose their way to Oklahoma City Thunder status, McConnell won over the City of Brotherly Love as a throwback point guard that dished dimes and was a gym rat that showed up on defense. Head coach Brett Brown compared him to Matthew Dellavedova during his rookie year.
A year later, Brown called out the NBA for not including McConnell in the Rising Stars Challenge on All-Star Weekend, saying, “We are 9-2 with him as a starter,” as justification. During this year’s media luncheon, Brown asked out loud, “How can we not play T.J.?”
Because apparently, all he does is win, win, win, no matter what.
But now is also the time for the Sixers to start winning too. After four years of losing on purpose, it was time to see what kind of talented was harvested and make the playoffs. That means shedding the skin of futility. Nerlens Noel was traded last year for the equivalent of a Pokemon card. Okafor was recently traded to the Brooklyn Nets along with Nik Stauskas for Trevor Booker.
If you look at the quotes after the trade, it feels like he’s being set free to the chorus of “good riddance.”
"He can go play basketball again,'' coach Brown said.
"Love you. New beginnings,'' Embiid said he texted Okafor. "Good luck. And I made sure to let him know I was going to kick his ass.''
As for McConnell, despite originally being meant to be a sacrificial lamb to the basketball gods, his skills and popularity have only grown. He was given the nickname “White Iverson” and that was before he put Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball in the spin cycle last month.
Philadelphia is a natural fit for McConnell. To him, the only difference between the city he plays in and the one he grew up in is Philly is more urban while Pittsburgh was smaller but greener, which matches his personality.
Three years into his NBA career, there isn’t a material possession in this world that McConnell can’t obtain. Yet he lives the lifestyle of the average American with his high school sweetheart whom he recently married.
Even though he is not the first professional basketball player in the family and also the son of a coach, McConnell’s entry into the NBA and rise to fan favorite mimics that of a classic underdog tale. While it is nice to see him rise to his own special place in the Sixers’ “Process”, he can never rest on his laurels.
“I knew I could play at this level,” McConnell said. “I just had to continue to prove to people that I could and I’m still doing that.”