Time to stop being surprised by T.J. McConnell

Time to stop being surprised by T.J. McConnell

HOUSTON — The time has come to expect strong performances from T.J. McConnell, not treat them as exceptions. 

McConnell entered the league undrafted three years ago as an underdog. He had to fight to make the Sixers' roster, let alone stay on it. For a long while, each notable game raised eyebrows as he established a place for himself in the NBA.

That ‘underdog label, though, has faded by now. 

“You can categorize me however you want, as a guy that stays ready,” McConnell said Sunday. “I know in the back of my mind I belong in this league and I do my job at a high level.”

McConnell has proved to be a reliable understudy waiting to step in when his name is called. Need a point guard in a pinch? Call on McConnell. Have to change starters just months into the season because of injuries? McConnell can handle that. Now he is carving out his own individual role, not just substituting for someone else's. 

McConnell has received a bump in playing time in the absence of Markelle Fultz, who is out indefinitely with soreness and scapular muscle imbalance. Brett Brown knows what he's getting when he turns to the point guard he has referred to as a "marine." 

McConnell averaged 29.5 minutes in the last two games without Fultz available. He posted 15 points, eight assists, and four rebounds in the Sixers' victory against the Mavericks on Saturday. In doing so, he became the first NBA player this season to reach those totals off the bench. McConnell also tied a career-high in field goals made (7 for 10). Brown showed confidence in McConnell by playing him for nearly the last eight minutes of the game as the Sixers and Mavericks fought down the stretch. 

"He's a winner," Brown said Saturday night. "Our guys love playing with him. He plays with the spirit that we want our team to be recognized for. ... He played big minutes and was a significant contributor in the win."

It was only this past summer that McConnell’s future with the Sixers was questioned — yet again — by some skeptics as the team added Fultz and both Ben Simmons and Jerryd Bayless returned from injuries. McConnell is more of a traditional point guard while the others were expected to add extra offense. The competition at the one spot was even steeper than in the past, but that didn’t shake McConnell.

“I took a step back and looked at what this team needs,” McConnell said. “I really worked on my shot a lot. It’s just about confidence in me shooting when I’m open. I’m going to continue to do that and continue to be whatever this team needs me to be.”

McConnell is practicing on extending his range while putting his teammates first. He had dished a total of 17 dimes in the past two games and is thriving in a system with additional shooters. 

McConnell has an obvious chemistry with his teammates on the court, often pulling them aside during timeouts and free throws. That translates into his evenly-distributed ball-handling. Of his 28 assists thus far, he has found nine different teammates: Robert Covington (six), Amir Johnson (five), Bayless and JJ Redick (four each), Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (three), Simmons and Dario Saric (two each), Joel Embiid and Justin Anderson (one each), according to NBA.com. 

"It makes my life easier with good players," McConnell said. 

McConnell is making Fultz's injury easier on the Sixers, too.

Interesting new odds on LeBron James' free agency destination, next season's Rookie of the Year

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Interesting new odds on LeBron James' free agency destination, next season's Rookie of the Year

Brett Brown is "star hunting." He's not naming names, but it's clear that LeBron James is at the top of his (and everybody's) list.

Until free agency officially starts on July 1, there's going to be plenty of speculation about whether the Sixers can actually land James. Bovada's latest odds on which team James will be playing for in Game 1 of the 2018-19 season don't give the Sixers a great shot.

The Lakers are now strong favorites, at 4/13. That's presumably because Spurs star Kawhi Leonard reportedly wants out of San Antonio and would like to return to his hometown of Los Angeles, specifically with the Lakers. Though the Spurs have said they want to keep Leonard if possible and reports are they don't want to trade him to a team in the Western Conference, the Lakers would definitely be a much more enticing option for James if they managed to get Leonard. 

The Sixers have the fourth-best odds, which are listed in full below.

What team will LeBron James play for Game 1 of the 2018-2019 Season?
Los Angeles Lakers                   4/13
Cleveland Cavaliers                   13/4
Houston Rockets                      15/2
Philadelphia 76ers                     10/1
Boston Celtics                          18/1
San Antonio Spurs                    20/1
Los Angeles Clippers                25/1                                           
New York Knicks                       30/1
Miami Heat                                40/1

Very early 2018-19 Rookie of the Year Odds

This season's Rookie of the Year hasn't even been announced yet. We'll know Monday night whether Ben Simmons brings home the award. But the odds for next season's Rookie of the Year are already out, and one of the newest Sixers, first-round pick Zhaire Smith, appears on Bovada's odds.

Unsurprisingly, Smith, who has a lot of room to grow (see story), is a long shot. The No. 16 selection has 45/1 odds to win. No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton has the best odds at 13/5, followed by the Mavs' Luka Doncic and the Kings' Marvin Bagley III. Mikal Bridges has 22/1 odds, while fellow Villanova product and new Milwaukee Buck Donte DiVincenzo makes an appearance at 40/1.

The complete odds are below.

2018-2019 NBA Rookie of the Year – Odds to Win
Deandre Ayton                          13/5
Luka Doncic                              3/1
Marvin Bagley                           9/2
Trae Young                               7/1
Jaren Jackson Jr                       9/1
Mohamed Bamba                      11/1
Kevin Knox                               15/1
Michael Porter Jr                       15/1
Mikal Bridges                            22/1
Collin Sexton                            22/1
Miles Bridges                            28/1
Wendell Carter Jr                       28/1
Donte DiVincenzo                     40/1
Shai Gilgeous-Alexansder          40/1
Zhaire Smith                              45/1
Lonnie Walker                           50/1
Robert Williams                         50/1

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With Bryan Colangelo saga in rearview, Sixers use draft as 1st step in repairing image

With Bryan Colangelo saga in rearview, Sixers use draft as 1st step in repairing image

Even Brett Brown had to admit just how much of a whirlwind this month has been for him.

“This has been a really different June,” he said after the 2018 NBA draft.

That’s certainly an understatement.

In a matter of weeks, Brown went from drawing up plays during the postseason to orchestrating his first draft as interim general manager. And there’s no time to take a breath with free agency barreling down the calendar on July 1.

While Brown has been tasked with running the Sixers’ front office operations for the time being (see story), he has also been put in charge of an even bigger challenge: reshaping the team’s image.

No matter your feelings on the Bryan Colangelo saga, there is no denying it was a black eye for the Sixers. One the franchise could ill afford heading into such an important summer.

So Brown set out to show that the Sixers are truly all about the player-friendly, tight-knit and development culture they have cultivated throughout “the process.” The reinforcement started with grabbing a pair of players in the draft with not only first-round talent, but first-rate character.

“When you look at sort of the values that were most important to us as we decided how to grow this team and select our players, there were none more important than just good people and character,” Brown said Friday of first-rounders Zhaire Smith and Landry Shamet. “Personally, when you would see me work the players out and then intermittently we would call people into my office, there was a connection and a comfort level that I had just talking to them as people.”

Of course talent trumps everything and Brown admitted the duo was ultimately snagged because of basketball ability above all else. However, it’s no coincidence that both players are soft-spoken and eager to grind for whatever minutes come their way on the court.

“I just want to come in here, put my work in and let it play out,” Smith said.

“At the end of the day, I just want to be a player that’s known to do whatever a coach needs me to do,” Shamet said. “Whatever the staff or my team needs me to do, that’s what I’m going to be. … Coming in and working hard and doing what I can on a day-to-day basis.”

What’s a little competition between family?

Oh, make no mistake, the Sixers see the program they’ve constructed as a family. And now that the branch of the tree that tends to talk way too much on social media is gone, Brown wants every draft pick that enters the building (and superstar that is willing to listen) to know this organization is a place you want to be.

“We’d like to welcome Zhaire’s family, we’d like to welcome Landry’s family to our home,” Brown said. “As I told these two young players, [they have] the ability to walk into this building and look up behind us and recognize the true history of this organization. To be able to look around and see the backyard that they now have and see sports science, and see a strength and conditioning program, and see an analytics department, and seeing the medical staff, and seeing the video area, and looking at our kitchen, which we kind of designed almost like a college atmosphere where we all go up as a team, as a family, an organization and spend time. This is their backyard where they’re going to get better.”

Now Brown hopes the franchise is stable enough again to add a high-profile name to the family by the time the July 4 BBQ rolls around.

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