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Inside T.J. McConnell's relationship with Brett Brown and where it all began

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Inside T.J. McConnell's relationship with Brett Brown and where it all began

It is so easy to see why Philly fans love T.J. McConnell. Talk to him for a few minutes and you’ll forget he’s an NBA player, and it’s not because of his baby face and those perfectly manicured locks (though that certainly helps). It’s because there’s a certain aura about him that makes you feel comfortable when you’re around him, and that talking to you isn’t any less important. 

It’s like he’s just one of us.

There was a stat floating around out there that McConnell had the smallest hands at the 2015 NBA draft combine.

On cue, McConnell looked at his hands and spread out his fingers. 

“Have you ever seen those Burger King commercials with like the incredibly small hands?” McConnell asked with a laugh.

“I was already skeptical I was going to make the NBA, but when they did all the testing, I was like, ‘If they really care about this, I am screwed.’”

From there, you know the story. McConnell went from summer league team to Sixers training camp invitee to getting called into Brett Brown’s office on that last day of roster cuts.  

One by one, guys started to leave the facility. And, one of the guys came down and was like, 'Coach wants to talk to you.'

It felt like days going on the elevator, just going up two floors, and I walk into his office, and it’s Lloyd Pierce and Billy Lange sitting there. And that’s the cool thing about Coach, it’s such a special moment and he’s joking and says, ‘I wanted to cut you but my assistant coaches pulled my arm to keep you.' And he was like, ‘Congratulations, you made the team.'” 

I had to sit down. To actually hear the words that: You did it. I can’t describe the feeling. The room kind of just started spinning a little bit, and I had to sit down and gather my emotions.

It was one of the best days of my life.”

Fast-forward through a 10-win season, a 28-win season, a 52-win season, and a roller-coaster of roles, that playful relationship with Brown is still very much the same.  

“Sometimes, he’ll hit me in the arm," McConnell said, "and I’ll hit him back in the chest, and he’ll say: ‘Don’t break your hand before the game.’

“Because he thinks he’s strong." 

McConnell shook his head like a son after his father makes a bad joke.

“He’s great. I just can’t put into words, he’s such a good person," McConnell said. "He’s genuine and he’s always there for the players and you don’t always have that, so I’ve been told.” 

Back on the brink

McConnell has seen his minutes drop as the Sixers continue to grow Markelle Fultz and rookie Landry Shamet continues to shine. But, if McConnell had any sense of bitterness, you wouldn’t know it. 

“He’s just a great coach to play for,” McConnell said of Brown. “I think our relationship has been great ever since I’ve been here.”

McConnell’s decreased minutes are something that weighs on Brown, who admitted over the weekend his disappointment with not being able to find him more time. 

“He is a tremendous example for the things that we value,” Brown said recently. “Look at what he does now when he doesn’t get in the game. He is Markelle Fultz’s biggest fan, he is a tremendous teammate on the bench. He has sacrificed for allowing us, allowing me, to coach Markelle Fultz and try to grow him. He is one of my all-time favorites.”

Brown also mentioned that McConnell is in a contract year. McConnell’s final year of his contract becomes guaranteed on Jan. 10, 2019, and he will become an unrestricted free agent next summer.

He’ll be the first to tell you that he knows another NBA contract isn’t guaranteed.

“I find myself thinking about playing 10 years, but I don’t think I can afford to ever look ahead," McConnell said. "I have to be one of those guys that takes it day by day. If I look ahead and say I want to play 10 years, I don’t think I’m getting the best out of myself that day, so that’s my mindset.”

Life after the NBA

Living in the gym as a coach’s son, McConnell can’t imagine life without it.

“I think coaching is in my blood, but I want my family to come first,” McConnell said. “I know I want to coach, but I’ll cross that bridge when it comes to it.” 

Brown, too, is a coach’s son, but McConnell thinks a day will come when his current head coach isn’t anywhere near a gym. 

“When he’s done coaching, I don’t think a lot of us will see him ever again, because I think he’ll go to New Zealand and live in like a little house in the wilderness and go fly fishing and probably have a long beard — that’s the type of guy he is,” McConnell said with a laugh. “It’ll be like the movie 'Castaway' trying to find him.”

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Sixers weekly observations: There's a snarling competitor under Joel Embiid's big smile

Sixers weekly observations: There's a snarling competitor under Joel Embiid's big smile

Joel Embiid is getting ready to start in his second straight All-Star Game, Ben Simmons is set to play in his first, and we have a fresh set of weekly observations to tide you over during this limbo without competitive basketball. 

• The playfulness and social media exploits sometimes obscure the fact that Joel Embiid competes.

Sure, he has off nights, but Embiid’s consistent effort, for a man of his size, is commendable. He’s played 54 games this season and scored in double-figures in all of them, with double-doubles in all but six.

It sounds basic enough — of course stars should play hard every night — but it’s not the reality of the NBA. Especially given his immense defensive responsibilities, you can’t begrudge Embiid the occasional “load management” day. In all honesty, he probably needs more. No disrespect to Boban Marjanovic and Jonah Bolden, but there’s a big drop-off at center when Embiid is out. Though he might not be the MVP, Embiid is up there in the literal sense of being most valuable to his team. 

His decision to lean into the microphone and end his press conference after another Sixers’ loss to the Celtics with, “The referees f------ sucked” wasn’t the most mature outlet for his frustration, but it was another sign of his snarling competitiveness. 

Embiid, though, is the rare superstar who usually has a smile in testy moments.

His comments after the Sixers’ blowout win over the Rockets on Jan. 22, in which he and James Harden each picked up technical fouls following a combative exchange in the second quarter, come to mind.

I was just walking back to my basket and I think [Harden] pushed my leg and naturally I’m going to react, and I did. We both got technical fouls and we move on. To me, I’m having fun. I’m always having fun and a lot of guys take it seriously. Especially when it comes to that, we just had one guy our last game that was acting crazy. But it’s fun to me. I love it. 

That guy who Embiid referred to as “acting crazy,” Russell Westbrook, is now his teammate on Team Giannis in the All-Star Game. It should be an interesting night, as should Feb. 28, when the Sixers play the Thunder in Oklahoma City. 

Lingering questions

The Sixers fell to the Celtics in the playoffs last season for plenty of reasons, among them an inability to take care of the ball, Simmons’ struggles, exemplary defense by Al Horford and Aron Baynes on Embiid, and Boston’s guards capitalizing on mismatches.

While the Sixers might be lucky enough to avoid the Celtics in the postseason, those are all issues which still be addressed. To Brett Brown and company’s credit, you sense they’re closer to having answers.

Simmons has gone from a subpar post player to one of the most efficient in the league, and he didn’t have a bad game last time out against Boston, with 16 points on 7 for 9 shooting, five assists, five rebounds and two steals. His free throw shooting (2 for 7 Tuesday vs. the Celtics) is still a concern.

Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris should remove some of the pressure on Embiid to dominate offensively every single game in a series. That said, sharper decision-making against double-teams by Embiid and, perhaps, creative movement around Embiid in the post — as opposed to standing around and watching him work — would be helpful.

Since the Butler trade, the Sixers are 26th in the NBA in turnovers (15.2 per game) and 22nd in turnover percentage (14.8 percent). Those numbers mean little out of context. When turnovers occur in the playoffs — ideally not in bunches, and not of the careless, unforced variety — is more important. 

And finally, you’d expect Jonathon Simmons, James Ennis and Mike Scott will boost the Sixers’ playoff defense, or at least make the team less vulnerable to mismatches. 

But 24 games isn’t much time to juggle experimentation and jostling for playoff positioning. It should be fun, at least for Joel Embiid. 

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NBA All-Stars rave about new-look Sixers

NBA All-Stars rave about new-look Sixers

It’s All-Star Weekend, so we thought we would find out about what fellow All-Stars and other players think about your new-look Sixers.

And let’s just say, this should make Sixers fans feel pretty good ...

“They’re different. Obviously, they’ve been good, but they added more depth, more athleticism, more scoring, more star power, and you look at that starting lineup and it’s really good, and you’ve got TJ (McConnell) coming off the bench with James Ennis and Jonathon Simmons, so it gives you some athleticism coming off the bench. They are up there.” — James Harden

“Big. Long. Athletic. It will be interesting to see how much better they can get, adding Tobias Harris and those guys, because they have already shown they can be one of the top teams in the East, so with those new additions, I think the sky is the limit for them. It’s going to be fun to watch.” — Mike Conley

 “When you have four guys that are really All-Stars on a team, and then a bunch of other guys around them that can play really well, it makes it interesting to see how it’s going to work out. It makes them tough.” — Danny Green, who also said Tobias Harris should’ve been an All-Star

“Right now they are extremely dangerous, need a little bit more time to play together, but they can match (anybody in the) world.” — Nikola Jokic

“Tough ... they are probably in the talks to win the championships, for sure.” — Luka Doncic

“They’re a super, super talented team … We’ve got a good rivalry going, they are super competitive, we are very familiar with them, and they are very familiar with us. Lot of trash talking out there, that’s what makes basketball super fun, when you’re super competitive like that and everyone is watching.” — Jayson Tatum

 “All the players they have, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler now, and also got JJ Redick as a shooter and now they just incorporated Tobias. They’re going to have to get their chemistry together with him. They are just going to be a totally different team.” — Kawhi Leonard

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