76ers

Memories of lean years, a framed jersey and a tribute video for T.J. McConnell in his return to Philadelphia

Memories of lean years, a framed jersey and a tribute video for T.J. McConnell in his return to Philadelphia

After 314 career games as Sixer, a series of long losing streaks during his early years with the team and an earned reputation as the ultimate hustle player, there was only one way T.J. McConnell was going to be received by fans at Wells Fargo Center when he returned Saturday night as a member of the Indiana Pacers.

McConnell just wouldn’t admit it at his locker before the game.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “Hopefully a lot of cheers. They root for their team hard, so we’ll see.”

The fifth-year point guard was standing in front of a framed Sixers jersey with his name on it. Attached was a signed note from general manager Elton Brand on behalf of the Sixers’ organization thanking McConnell for his contributions in Philadelphia and wishing him and his wife Valerie the best.

And yes, the cheers were loud for an undrafted player who made tirelessly picking up full court one of his signatures.

Brett Brown formed a bond with McConnell during their time together. He recalled recruiting McConnell to join the Sixers and preparing him for all the losses — and the playing time — that was to come during the Process.

“I just loved how hard he played and convinced him, recruited him to be a part of our summer league [team] and so on. When you fast forward to now, what’s this, his fifth year in the NBA? And the history he had here in Philadelphia and just the spirit he played with and lived with, and his personality — he’s good people and he’s tough. It’s a feel-good story and to feel like you were a part of that in some small way, it will be fantastic to see him. He is a winner.”

McConnell’s playing time was sporadic once the Sixers became a more competitive team. He has his limitations as a player, including his lack of size and lack of outside shooting, but Brown wanted to emphasize McConnell’s abilities outside of toughness, locker room presence and the like.

He plays with his heart on his sleeve. This city loves him, he’s Pittsburgh, he’s hard, he’s all that. And then you say, well, s---, he’s pretty good. … It was deeper than he’s just a tremendous glue guy. He actually could play well and I think that we’re all going to see him in the NBA for many, many, many years. Personally, I will look back and be very proud of him for his journey. I have a fondness for that man because of the history that we all spent here in Philadelphia and what we endured together, and what he persevered to find — now seemingly an NBA career.

McConnell shared that fondness for his coach and their time together. He said he talks with Brown occasionally, as well as a few others in the Sixers’ organization.

“I think he nailed it, “McConnell said when told of Brown’s memories. “Starting here, winning 10 games and at the end of my tenure here, you’re one shot away from going to the Eastern Conference Finals. That’s pretty incredible, the journey we went on. He taught me so much about life, and especially basketball.”

Hitting the road this week, or wasting away on the couch in a food coma? The perfect time to binge your favorite NBC Sports Philadelphia podcast! Click here for more.

More on the Sixers

To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question for Joel Embiid

To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question for Joel Embiid

In years past, it was a common occurrence for Joel Embiid to make a big play and elicit cheers from a sold-out Wells Fargo Center. He’d then raise his arms, imploring the crowd to get louder — and they’d oblige.

This kind of moment happened in Tuesday night’s 97-92 win in a slugfest against the Nuggets (see observations).

With Denver having gone on a run to cut a double-digit deficit to two, the Sixers made a push late in the third. As the clock was winding down, Embiid grabbed an offensive rebound and made a circus shot while he was being fouled.

Embiid went out to center court, raised his arms and the fans went nuts.

Moments like this haven’t been as frequent this year. Not because Embiid hasn’t had spectacular moments, but because he’s trying to be even-keeled.

I haven't done it enough all season,” Embiid said. “I have not been having fun like usual. … It goes back to with me being mature. And one of the biggest parts of my game is just having fun and by having fun is talking trash, but that part, that's kind of been cut. I just need to be myself and I guess just do whatever I want. Because when I'm having fun, I dominate. But this year, I don't know, I can probably count on one hand how many times I've done it. Last year was basically a reaction that I love it. They get me going. They understand me, I do understand them. So, I need to start doing it again because that's how I'm gonna dominate.

Embiid continues to be his dominant self on the defensive end — in case some national pundits forgot that there are two ends to a basketball court. He’s No. 1 in the NBA in terms of defensive rating (95.3) and anchored the defense that held the Nuggets to just 92 points.

With Jimmy Butler gone, it’s also been Embiid who’s been tasked with being the team’s go-to scorer in the fourth quarter. Going to a post player late in games is not something a ton of teams do. Then again, most teams don’t have a big man as physically gifted as Embiid.

Brett Brown has tried to do different things here and there — run isos for Tobias Harris or pick-and-rolls with Ben Simmons. Ultimately, though, Brown said his offense still runs through his “crown jewel.”

Embiid, who almost sounded like a player that had just lost, admitted that he’s still adjusting to his late-game role and also to the idea of drawing attention to free up his teammates.

“Not good enough,” Embiid said when asked about his late-game scoring. “Still getting used to [it]. The whole season I've been trying to adjust. Obviously, it's not the same as last year. It's completely different. So the adjustment has been hard but I'm gonna do whatever I'm asked to every single night. Like I keep mentioning, even if it's being a ball screener or just rebound the ball or take three shots — I'll do that. Whatever they ask me to do.”

It’s been a peculiar season for Embiid. If you were to just look at his scoring numbers, they’re way down. He’s averaging just 21.9 points, down from his 27.5 mark last season. A lot of that is the result of more aggressive double teams and a new supporting cast.

He also just seems a little off as far as his personality goes — and his words Tuesday kind of confirmed that. The only game where he seemed to be his usual plucky self was back on Oct. 30 against the Timberwolves. Of course, that’s the game where he got into a scuffle with Karl-Anthony Towns, shadowboxed to the crowd, got into a profanity-laced Instagram war with Towns, and got suspended for two games.

After that incident, Embiid vowed to never get suspended again. It’s a respectable cause, to be sure, but it seems like it’s led the 25-year-old into an existential crisis.

I'm not trying to be a distraction to the team," Embiid said. "The fight happened and we had good momentum and from there, we just kind of lost it. We lost a couple of games. So, I'm not trying to be a distraction, but that's just part of my game. And I feel like me losing that part, I think it's kind of taken a toll on my game. So it just goes back to me. Sometimes I might be childish and like I said, do whatever I want to, but then again, I care about winning. Everybody knows that. I'll do whatever it takes to win. I care about my teammates, I care about the organization, I care about being a role model. Everybody told me that I need to be — from fans to everybody else — I gotta be mature, so I'm doing it and I don't think it's working but I'm gonna keep doing it.

To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers

Charles Barkley takes aim at Joel Embiid, says Sixers ‘got no chance’ at NBA Finals

Charles Barkley takes aim at Joel Embiid, says Sixers ‘got no chance’ at NBA Finals

The Sixers have only played 25 regular-season games, but that has been sufficient time for Charles Barkley to form some strong opinions about his former team and Joel Embiid. 

At the September unveiling for his statue at the Sixers’ practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, Barkley said the Sixers were his pick to win the NBA title.

His thinking has shifted quickly and, on the NBA on TNT’s postgame show Tuesday night, he targeted Embiid after the Sixers’ 97-92 win over the Denver Nuggets (see observations).

He’s the toughest player in the league to match up with, but we don’t talk about him the way we talk about Luka [Doncic], Giannis [Antetokounmpo], Anthony Davis, James [Harden] — we don’t ever say that about him. It’s frustrating for me, because I picked the Sixers to get to the Finals. They ain’t got no chance. 

Embiid posted 22 points, 10 rebounds and six assists vs. the Nuggets and is averaging 22 points and 12.4 rebounds on the season.The two-time All-Star has a 95.3 defensive rating, the best of any player in the NBA who’s played at least 25 minutes per night.

For Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, the 25-year-old is falling short of his potential.

"We’re telling you, ‘You can be great. You ain’t playing hard enough.’ Twenty-two ain’t enough to get you to the next level,” O’Neal said. “Do you want to be great or do you want to be good? If you want to be good, keep doing 22 points. You want to be great, give me 28, give me 30. You want to be great, watch Giannis — he wants to be great.”

Embiid has admitted that he perhaps hasn’t always played with his highest level of intensity. The Sixers have prioritized managing his minutes and delivering him to the playoffs healthy and in peak physical condition. Sunday, Embiid had an interesting quote about that philosophy.

The whole season it feels like I've been going through the motions and part of it is also making sure I'm healthy for the playoffs,” he told reporters. “Going into the season, the last playoffs that I've been part of I've not been healthy, so for me going into this season, my main goal was to make sure that I get to the playoffs healthy and so far I've been doing a good job of that —taking care of my body and also, on the court when I'm needed, I'm gonna bring it. But then again, I'm also lucky that we got so many guys that can make a lot of things happen. But if I'm needed, I'll be there.

The NBA on TNT crew is clearly not aligned with Embiid’s outlook. They don't seem impressed with Embiid's defense, the fact that he's been an efficient, high-volume post player on offense, or much about the Sixers overall.

Barkley is almost ready to abandon his preseason prediction. 

“When the season started we were like, OK, Milwaukee is in that conversation, Philadelphia — that was it,” Barkley said. “There were two teams. But right now Boston has really played better, Toronto has played better, and that shouldn’t be. … I don’t want to jump totally off, but I’m in the air.”

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers