For Philly native Tahjere McCall, working out for Sixers 'a dream'

For Philly native Tahjere McCall, working out for Sixers 'a dream'

CAMDEN, N.J. — You couldn't wipe the smile off Tahjere McCall's face if you tried.

The former Tennessee State guard was one of six prospects at the Sixers' training facility Monday morning for a pre-draft workout as the team does its due diligence on a handful of players in advance of the NBA draft when it will have four chances to potentially find a second-round wonder. At just 6-foot-5 and 195 pounds, McCall was lightly recruited out of Philadelphia's Carver High School before landing at Niagara and then eventually transferring to Tennessee State.

And although McCall's name is unlikely to be called June 22, he had a chance to show off for the team he grew up watching as a kid in North Philadelphia.

"I absolutely grew up a Sixers fan. Allen Iverson was here at the time I was growing up and you couldn't not be a Sixers fan," McCall said. "I didn't always play basketball. I was OK. I didn't play AAU, I didn't play [for my high school] until my 11th-grade year, 12th-grade year. I only had one scholarship offer, so just to be in a position now, it wasn't guaranteed. And to be in Philadelphia on my first workout, I can't write it up."

After two seasons and two different coaches in upstate New York, McCall made the move to Tennessee State, the same school that produced Robert Covington. 

Playing for the Tigers, McCall flourished, earning Ohio Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors in each of his final two seasons while also earning first-team All-OVC honors last year. He also finished second on the team in points at 14.3 per game and racked up close to three steals a night, good for sixth among all individuals in Division I basketball.

So when McCall found out that he would have the chance to put on a Sixers uniform — even if it was just a practice jersey — he was ecstatic.

"You should've seen my face when I got the text," McCall said. "It's a dream ... being home, getting to see the nice facilities and meet the coaches is just awesome."

With guys like Colorado's Derrick White, Maryland's Melo Trimble and Kentucky's Isaiah Briscoe all in the gym with McCall on Monday, the defensive stud was certainly not the most well-known of the group. Only about half of Tennessee State's games were even televised last season and in his four years of collegiate ball, McCall never got the chance to play in an NCAA Tournament game.

Nor was he the most well-rounded. Despite an excellent defensive pedigree, McCall took just 37 three-pointers last season, shooting 24.9 percent from distance and he averaged worst than 65 percent from the charity stripe.

But maybe the Sixers — the only team thus far to bring in McCall for a workout — see something in the local prospect similar to Covington, a defensive specialist in his own right who ultimately wound up going undrafted back in 2013.

"He brings toughness to the basketball court," Sixers vice president of player personnel Marc Eversley said of McCall. "He plays in a stance, he's got great length, he brings a toughness to the court. ... I think he's got to work on his offense a little bit. He's got to develop his jump shot but again, I think he's a defender and that's his elite skill."

McCall says he models his game after Spurs All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard and Grizzlies guard Tony Allen, but also Hawks forward Kent Bazemore, whose collegiate stats at Old Dominion are quite similar to those of McCall. In four seasons, Bazemore shot better than 32.1 percent from beyond the arc just once, and it wasn't until his junior year that he averaged double-figure points per game.

Still, for a guy who isn't even ranked among DraftExpress' top 100 prospects in this year's draft class, making comparisons to a couple of NBA champions and some of the league's best defenders might be a stretch. In the meantime, however, McCall is just enjoying being back home with his family and his mom's cooking — most notably, her ribs and fried chicken.

If a chance to play pro basketball does come along in the next few months, though, expect McCall to jump at the chance to do just that.

"I've always had just one opportunity to make myself, so I'm used to having one opportunity and making the most out of it," McCall said. "I didn't expect this when I was playing high school. You just think, 'I'm playing for fun,' then it keeps getting gradually better and gradually better and now, I can hopefully help my parents and do something I love to do. It's just a dream."

Cavs stuck in 'Strugglesville' but still manage to survive

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Cavs stuck in 'Strugglesville' but still manage to survive

CLEVELAND -- There was none of the usual postgame chatter or music in the Cavaliers locker room.

The mood was somber and quiet, not the same place.

"Right now we're in Strugglesville," LeBron James said. "But it felt like a win. We needed it. Definitely."

Isaiah Thomas made two free throws with 11 seconds left and Cleveland came up with a defensive stop in the frantic final seconds after blowing a 23-point lead to beat the Orlando Magic 104-103 on Thursday night and snap a four-game losing streak.

After Thomas made his shots, Orlando's Elfrid Payton missed a contested layup with three seconds left. The three officials ruled there was an inadvertent whistle and held a jump ball at midcourt.

Magic forward Aaron Gordon grabbed the toss and sank a 45-footer as the horn sounded and Cleveland's crowd shrieked in disbelief. But Gordon committed a jump-ball violation with the move and Cleveland only had to inbound the ball to come away with a victory following a crazy and exhausting final sequence that left everyone dazed.

"No, I don't," said Thomas when asked if he knew what happened. "It was a lot of back and forth. I'm just glad we just came out with the win" (see full recap).

Rockets cruise past Timberwolves in Harden’s return
HOUSTON -- Eric Gordon scored 30 points to lead the Houston Rockets to a 116-98 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday night.

James Harden returned to the Rockets' lineup after missing seven games with a left hamstring strain and finished with 10 points on 3-for-15 shooting, and added seven assists, two steals and two blocks in 26 minutes. Houston went 4-3 in his absence.

Chris Paul had 19 points, nine assists and six rebounds, and Clint Capela added 20 points for the Rockets. Houston has won 15 of the past 17 meetings with Minnesota, including a 10-game winning streak at home.

Gordon closed out a big third quarter by hitting a buzzer-beating 3-pointer off the glass from a step behind the half-court line. After hitting the shot under heavy pressure from Andrew Wiggins, Gordon gave a high-five to Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who was sitting courtside near the shot.

Gordon's 3-pointer helped the Rockets finish the third quarter on a 16-4 run to take an 89-70 lead into the fourth with their largest advantage of the game. Gordon made 11 of 19 shots, including 7 of 13 from 3, and fell just short of his season-high 33 points against Utah on Dec. 18.

With Rockets small forward Trevor Ariza sitting out the first part of a two-game suspension for a postgame locker room incident on Monday night in Los Angeles, Luc Mbah a Moute started in Ariza's place, scoring 14 points in 32 minutes.

Along with Ariza, reserve guard Gerald Green was also serving the first of a two-game suspension for the altercation with the Clippers (see full recap).

Blazers top Pacers for 5th straight home win
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Damian Lillard scored 26 points and eight assists, Jusuf Nurkic had 19 points and a season-high 17 rebounds, and the Portland Trail Blazers won their fifth consecutive home game, beating the Indiana Pacers 100-86 on Thursday night.

C.J. McCollum added 16 points and Shabazz Napier 13 for Portland, which seems to have its homecourt mojo back, winning five straight after dropping six consecutive home games in early December. The Blazers also beat Indiana for the ninth consecutive time on their home floor.

Victor Oladipo and Darren Collison scored 23 points each for Indiana.

Portland took control late in the third quarter, when the Blazers held Indiana scoreless for more than five minutes. It was part of Portland's 21-2 run, during which Napier scored eight points to help erase a six-point deficit and give the Blazers an 89-76 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

Indiana was without forward Myles Turner, the team's second-leading scorer this season. Turner has missed five consecutive games with a right elbow injury (see full recap).

Sixers suddenly beating once unbeatable teams

Sixers suddenly beating once unbeatable teams


BOSTON — What a difference two games make.

The Sixers entered this week 0-8 against the top three Eastern Conference teams: the Celtics, Cavaliers and Raptors. By Thursday night, they had picked up two straight wins over them.

The Sixers followed up Monday’s victory over the Raptors with an 89-80 win over the Celtics (see observations)

“I think we are in a good position right now,” Ben Simmons said. “Still a lot of improvement, a lot of things we’ve got to pick up on, but I think we are doing really well and getting better.” 

All season long, a downfall of the Sixers has been giving up leads. Ten, 15, 20 points have been erased just like that. 

The Sixers’ largest advantage was 21 points in the last two games, and in both instances their opponents fought back. The Raptors cut the lead to one with three minutes to play; the Celtics got within seven with two minutes on the clock.

Unlike in the past, the Sixers held on for wins.

“We’ve been in that situation too many times,” Joel Embiid said. “We just have to stay calm and keep moving the ball. We made a couple mistakes, but everything was fine and we got the win.” 

The game was missing two key players. The Celtics were shorthanded without their leading scorer, Kyrie Irving (shoulder). The Sixers were down starting shooting guard JJ Redick (leg). Brett Brown considered their absences “almost a wash.” 

Newly-announced All-Star starter Embiid led all players with 26 points, 16 rebounds and six assists, his 19th double-double of the season. 

“They are still a great team,” Brown said of the Celtics. “For us to come in here and build a lead, hold onto the lead, close out the game, and at times not in a pretty way, is a fantastic result for us.” 

With the win, the Sixers snapped a seven-game losing streak at TD Garden dating back to April 4, 2014. They also avoided a regular-season sweep by the Celtics. 

The Sixers moved above .500 (21-20) and into the eight spot in the East. The Celtics and Raptors could be postseason pairings if the Sixers hold their ground in the standings, a scenario they are well aware of in these regular-season games. 

“I don’t know what seed we are going to be, but that’s a potential matchup in the playoffs,” Embiid said. “We always want to come out and try to dominate and let them know that it’s not going to be easy.”