Before the Sixers' season started, it was hard to know what exactly T.J. McConnell's role would be.
Ben Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick in 2016 who missed all of last season, was being groomed to be Brett Brown's point guard. This year's No. 1 pick, Markelle Fultz, was a point guard at Washington. The newly-acquired JJ Redick and a healthy Jerryd Bayless muddled the entire guard picture.
But as his effort in Wednesday night's heartbreaking loss to the Rockets showed, Brett Brown will always find a role for McConnell.
"Inspirational," Brown said when asked about McConnell's performance. "Game-changing stuff. T.J. gets, 'Oh, he can't play with Ben because he can't shoot' and, you know, 'He can't do this because he can't shoot.' T.J. wins. That kid is a winner. Often times people look at him like what he can't do and how can you pair him with people like Ben. We don't think that at all and we're not going to do it. Tonight we played him with Ben and we'll continue to do that and I thought that his game tonight was inspirational."
The third-year guard was a big catalyst for the Sixers in almost beating Houston and superstar James Harden. He bothered Harden all night, forcing the five-time All-Star into eight turnovers. McConnell finished with just six points but filled the rest of the stat sheet with nine assists, six steals and five rebounds.
"T.J., I thought was the best player on the floor," Joel Embiid said. "He was all over the gym. Getting steals, playing defense. Setting up the team as a point guard. He found me, we've had that relationship since last year, but I thought he was the best player on the floor."
McConnell wasn't concerned about his stats. Or being an inspiration. He knows his role and filled it quite well Wednesday.
"I'm just trying to provide energy for our team and help us win," McConnell said. "If it was inspiring that's great but I'm just out there to do whatever this team needs me to do."
Before the game, Brown said that McConnell would get the minutes left by Fultz, who will be out for the next three games at minimum.
But don't expect McConnell to look at it as a handout. He's had to earn everything he's gotten. A long shot to make the Sixers' roster out of camp his rookie season, McConnell played in 81 games and started 17. Last season, when his role was expected to be reduced, he played 81 games again and started 51 of them.
McConnell is an NBA player. Maybe not a star, or even a starter, but a damn good player. On Wednesday, he didn't look out of place playing against Harden or dishing to Embiid. He was right where he belonged, fulfilling his role.