Arizona's T.J. McConnell eyeing NBA success by accepting his role


Arizona's T.J. McConnell eyeing NBA success by accepting his role

You might not hear too many athletes confess that they’re not the best, that they don’t have what it takes to be a superstar in their sport.

But hearing that can be pretty refreshing at times. T.J. McConnell hopes it’s refreshing to the ears of NBA executives.

The guard, who’s looking to get selected in this month’s NBA Draft after wrapping up his senior season at Arizona, talked about his approach at last month’s NBA Draft Combine, making it clear that he’s looking to do anything that will get him on a roster.

“I’m here to be a team guy, a locker-room guy. I’ll know my role. I’m not going to try to come into a team and be something that I’m not," McConnell said. "I’ll come in and run a team, play hard and hit open shots.”

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He also said that being the type of player who wants to be a superstar can be detrimental to certain guys. Sure, there are those who have the ability to be one of the league’s top stars. But every championship team needs role players, too.

That’s what McConnell wants to bring.

“I think sometimes players get lost in the shuffle because sometimes they don’t accept their role. It kind of messes with their head," he said. "But for a guy like me, I know I’m not going to be superstar kind of guy. I’m going to go in and do what my team needs me to do and play hard.”

Don’t let McConnell’s humble approach fool you, though. He isn’t just some guy you’ll run into at your local rec center.

McConnell spent two years in Tucson and served as point guard, running the show on a team that made back-to-back runs to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament. Each time, the Wildcats lost to the Final Four-bound Wisconsin Badgers, but that shouldn’t tarnish the accomplishments of a team that won Pac-12 regular-season championships in each of the past two seasons.

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McConnell himself, though surrounded by great talent, stood out, as well. He was an all-conference selection this past season and had a terrific NCAA tournament, averaging 15.5 points, 5.0 assists and 4.3 rebounds in four tournament games. His 19- and 17-point performances in NCAA tournament wins over Ohio State and Xavier, respectively, were his third- and fourth-highest scoring outputs of the season.

In addition to taking a team-first attitude toward his NBA future, prospective employers ought to like the fact that McConnell has not just played on basketball’s big stage but that he’s thrived there.

“I think in the NBA, every game’s a big game," McConnell said. "The NCAA tournament is the biggest of big in the NCAA, so those Elite Eights and Sweet Sixteens really prepare you for the type of games you’re going to be playing in the NBA.”

McConnell might not be superstar material, but he’s not trying to be. Fellow Arizona alums Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler, Sean Elliott and Jason Terry might not have ever been the best players on their NBA teams. But they all have NBA championship rings, 10 of them between the four, to be exact.

See? Championship teams need role players, too.

Lineup changes could be on the way for Bulls: 'It's still up in the air'


Lineup changes could be on the way for Bulls: 'It's still up in the air'

It’s tough to call the position battle for the backup point guard spot on a Lottery-bound team important, but here we are two days into the Bulls’ season.

It won’t move the needle in NBA circles and Dwane Casey won’t be putting in additional time getting ready for Saturday’s game, but there appears to be potential for change in Fred Hoiberg’s rotation.

One day after an embarrassing display in a season-opening loss to the Sixers, Hoiberg said the Bulls have yet to make a decision on a potential lineup change for tomorrow’s affair against the Detroit Pistons. Kris Dunn, who missed Thursday’s game for the birth of his first child, was not at practice on Friday and may or may not be available for the home opener.

That could prompt changes after Cam Payne, inserted into the starting lineup, was largely ineffective, failing to score on 0 of 4 shooting in 21 minutes.

“We’re gonna see how practice goes today and then make that decision,” Hoiberg said. “It’s still up in the air on what we’re gonna do.”

The loss certainly can’t fall on just Payne, as the Bulls went lifeless after a 41-point first quarter that had them in the lead after 12 minutes. From there the Sixers outscored them by 29 in the second and third quarters, facing little resistance from a Bulls defense that doesn’t appear to have made much improvement from a year ago, Dunn or no Dunn.

Philadelphia shot 48 percent from the field, scored 20 fast-break points and 46 points in the paint, cruising to 102 points through three quarters before reserves finished things off. Even with Dunn the defensive prospects don’t look good, meaning Hoiberg might have to make changes to ignite the offense that scored just 35 points in those second and third quarters.

The Bulls could go a few different routes. Zach LaVine’s hot hand in the first quarter – 15 points on 6 of 7 shooting – saw the ball in his hands, and he even added two assists.

“It's a collective effort. You've got to have all five guys out there trying to play the right way and again, we found a recipe with Zach, especially in that first unit, where we let him bring the ball up the floor,” Hoiberg said. “We ran a couple actions where he was the facilitator and we put Cam in the corner. So a lot of that will be dictated by who has it going on a particular night and last night it happened to be Zach, so he was the one that was doing a lot of facilitating.”

Past a point guard-less lineup, the backups to Payne – Ryan Arcidiacono and Tyler Ulis – could also see extended minutes going forward.

Arcidiacono had 8 points and 8 assists in 28 minutes, though the majority of those stats came in garbage time. Still, he hit a pair of 3-pointers and didn’t turn the ball over, and five of his assists resulted in makes at the rim.

Ulis, acquired off waivers last week, could inject some life into the second unit.

“He’s ready. He’s done a good job in practice,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve gone through the system with him as far as what we expect and if there’s a point in the game where he can go out there and we feel he can help us, I’m confident that he’ll go out there and give us good effort.”

The point guard rotation isn’t the key to unlocking the Bulls as a lockdown defensive team, or no longer suffering the offensive dry spells that happened Thursday. But in a season that’s already showing signs of adversity, shaking up the lineup might be Hoiberg’s only chance.

Wendell Carter Jr. gets early 'learning experience' against Embiid, Sixers

Wendell Carter Jr. gets early 'learning experience' against Embiid, Sixers

PHILADELPHIA – Picture yourself at 19 years old.

Maybe you were in college. Maybe you hit the job market early.

What you likely weren’t doing was guarding one the NBA’s best centers in your first professional game.

That was the task charged to Wendell Carter Jr. in the Bulls’ 127-108 loss to the 76ers in the season opener at the Wells Fargo Center Thursday.

Carter Jr. was the seventh overall pick in the NBA draft after just one season at Duke. He earned the start in his NBA debut after an impressive preseason, but nothing could’ve prepared him for going up against Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” Carter Jr. said when asked if Embiid was as impressive as he thought he’d be. “He’s a phenomenal player. He’s one of, or the best, big man in the league. Very skilled, very poised. He knows his spots on the court.

“I didn’t go out there with my best effort. It’s just a learning experience for me.”

Carter Jr. had eight points, three rebounds, three assists and a block in 20 minutes. He also picked up four fouls, which the rookie attributed to the physicality and craftiness of Embiid.

But he did flash the impressive and varied skill set that made him a high pick and such a coveted prospect. He was also able to garner the praise of the Bulls’ veterans.

“Even though Wendell got in foul trouble he was still playing (Embiid) solid,” Zach LaVine, who scored a team-high 30 points, said. “That’s a tough first game right there. But he didn’t lack for confidence. Made him take some tough shots, but he’s going to make them. He’s that type of player.”

To his credit, Carter Jr. was candid about his performance. He admitted that his emotions ran the gamut from nervous to excited to happy.

In a season that will have its ups and downs as the young Bulls develop and learn, there will likely be more games like this against other elite NBA competition. It’ll be how Carter Jr. responds that will define his career.

“It’s the first game so I don’t want to put too much on myself,” Carter Jr. said. “It would be different if it was like the 50th game or 60th game. It’s the first game. We’re just going to move on from it. We’ve got our home opener on Saturday (vs. the Pistons). That’s where my mind is right now.”

See, he’s learning already.