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.