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.”

[MORE NBA DRAFT: NBA Draft Profile: Arizona G T.J. McConnell]

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.

[MORE NBA DRAFT: Looney's rebounding could prove useful to Bulls]

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.

Five observations from Bulls' preseason, including Zach LaVine's focus

USA Today

Five observations from Bulls' preseason, including Zach LaVine's focus

The Bulls blew through four preseason games in seven days, a pace coach Jim Boylen acknowledged by resting his starters for one.

But now it gets real. Wendell Carter Jr. made his debut Sunday in Toronto after sitting the first three games with a bruised tailbone, but the second-year big man only played first-half minutes.

Thursday’s preseason finale at the United Center against the Hawks is an opportunity to extend minutes, set rotations and square off against a young, rebuilding team looking to make a similar jump. Here’s what the Bulls’ preseason has shown so far:

Zach LaVine is playing with a proper edge

The preternaturally gifted scorer often is accused of being an empty calories player, spouting empty words. Those who are around LaVine on a daily basis see his work ethic and care factor and say otherwise.

LaVine has made no secret of his desire to represent the Bulls at the 2020 All-Star game at the United Center. But through three games---he sat with the other starters last Friday in Indiana---he isn’t trying to get there with a head-down, selfish approach.

LaVine has shown leadership, an improved commitment at the defensive end and his 23.3 points in 23 minutes proves he still scores in bunches. Boylen deserves some of the credit for LaVine’s focus, challenging him to be a better two-way player. Veteran Thaddeus Young also has been in LaVine’s ear. But LaVine put in the work and is playing like a man on a mission.

Coby White is fearless

The first-round pick said all the right things about playing with confidence when the Bulls used the No. 7 selection on him. But so many 19-year-olds have uttered similar sentiments and then looked overwhelmed.

White isn’t that. His speed and scoring ability have demanded a rotational role. And who cares if he’s not a point guard yet, with just five assists in 105 minutes? His ability to push the ball and play off it will be critical for a second unit that will feature the defensive-minded Kris Dunn.

White still needs to eliminate his tendency to take long 2-pointers and learn to finish better. And the point guard knowledge needs to come eventually. But for now, unleash him and let his athleticism do the trick.

Boylen and the Bulls are playing like a modern NBA team

In the three games the regulars have played, the Bulls have attempted 38, 37 and 49 3-pointers. The 49 3-pointers versus the Raptors would’ve represented a franchise, regular-season record.

After taking over for the fired Fred Hoiberg last season, Boylen drew widespread criticism for his publicly stated plan to slow down the offense and build it back up with proper fundamentals. Furthermore, last season’s roster, particularly down the stretch as the Bulls fielded gloried G League lineups, didn’t lend itself to perimeter shooting.

The additions of Tomas Satoransky, Luke Kornet and White help. So does a more versatile roster with multiple ballhandlers. This approach isn’t going away this season.

Carter needs to stay on the court

The defensive-minded big man consistently draws praise from coaches and teammates for his communication skills and ability to read the court. There also are raves for his offensive potential.

However, it’s getting to the point where the Bulls need to see it consistently, not talk about it. Between thumb surgery limiting him to 44 games in an otherwise promising rookie season and now Carter showing some rust---and some nice plays---Sunday in Toronto, consistency and reliability needs to follow.

After all, Carter never fully mastered the art of avoiding foul trouble last season. His interior defense and rim protection will be critical for a team challenged in both areas.

The Bulls need to broaden Lauri Markkanen's offensive game

The good news is Markkanen shot 44.4 percent from 3-point range in three games. The bad news is over half of Markkanen’s shots have come from behind the arc.

Markkanen is too talented---and too much a matchup nightmare---to be relegated to a spot-up shooter. During his dominant February stretch last season, Markkanen displayed a dribble, drag-step move that seemed unguardable. Offseason talk centered on his bulking up for more post play.

This is where Markkanen’s rebounding is so essential. He has the ability to push the ball up the court himself. There’s nothing wrong with Markkanen shooting 3-pointers. But he’s at his best in motion, with multiple offensive options at his disposal.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Guest Ricky O’Donnell on the future with Zach LaVine


Bulls Talk Podcast: Guest Ricky O’Donnell on the future with Zach LaVine

Kevin Anderson is joined by SB Nation's Ricky O'Donnell to talk Zach LaVine and the Bulls preseason.

0:55 - On Zach LaVine’s preseason and if he is the true star on this Bulls team

3:00 - What should we expect from LaVine this season?

4:45 - LaVine’s true ceiling is…

7:00 - Can LaVine be a top-3 scorer in the NBA?

9:15 - Concerns over Lauri Markkanen

12:40 - On the LaVine and Lauri 2-man game

15:50 - Ricky explains why he’s optimistic on the Bulls

17:25 - On Bulls depth and White vs. Dunn in rotation

21:15 - Expectations for Bulls win total this season

24:00 - Are Raptors likely to make the postseason?

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below:

Bulls Talk Podcast