The distance wasn’t that far, at least by the standards that T.J. McConnell has traveled on a basketball court. He came out of the game in the fourth quarter on Monday night, and as he walked from halfcourt to the bench, he raised his arms in triumph, while the crowd rose to its feet to celebrate what had been the game of the point guard’s life.
Three years of watching McConnell tell you he isn’t given to self-aggrandizement — that isn’t part of a point guard’s job description — but if some of the gesture was reserved for himself, that was OK, too. It wasn’t just that the team raged defiantly against a series that had turned against it, or that The Process had flamed to life once again, but that McConnell was the leader of the turnaround, elevated to the starting lineup and producing a fierce performance that was even better than his impressive stat line.
An out-of-body experience, someone asked after the game, looking to explain the evening and McConnell’s wildly demonstrative reactions to his successes on the court?
“Let’s go with that,” McConnell said.
This wasn’t supposed to happen for McConnell in the NBA. Not this. Not standing ovations and playoff starts, and now the realization that he not only has a bright, lucrative future, but that he also has seriously muddied the Sixers’ organizational plans at the guard position.
McConnell might be the last brilliant thing ever done by Sam Hinkie as the general manager of the Sixers and orchestrator of a rebuilding strategy so universally supported that the owner of the team hired a nanny to get him back in the crib. Hinkie signed the undrafted McConnell the day after the 2015 NBA draft, sent him to both summer leagues, and gave him a training-camp tryout in competition with five other guards for three roster spots.
The list is laughable in hindsight, particularly after McConnell had his game Monday against the Celtics to stave off postseason elimination, but the 2015-16 Sixers were on the way to a 10-win season, and you don’t do that with Jason Kidd or Steve Nash on the team. McConnell’s competition was Tony Wroten, Kendall Marshall, Pierre Jackson, Isaiah Canaan, and Scottie Wilbekin.
While that team was opening with 18 straight losses (on the way to 1-30), the Sixers hired Jerry Colangelo to be the grown-up in the room, and in late December, he traded two of Hinkie’s precious second-round draft picks for Ish Smith. That was the end of McConnell’s term as the starter, and no one would have been surprised if it had been the end of McConnell as well.
He always understood the slights — not getting drafted, not being considered a starter — but he just kept grinding away.
“It’s just the eye test,” McConnell said. “I don’t really pass it.”
So, yes, it has been a long path, from being benched on an egregiously bad team in favor of Ish Smith, to being heralded as the best player on the floor of a conference semifinal playoff game. In fact, such a long path that raising his arms aloft wasn’t just understandable — it was necessary.
The real issue now, however, after accepting that McConnell’s journey actually took place, is about what comes next, and about which certainties must be reclassified as something less.
Is McConnell still a backup point guard in the NBA? Does the Sixers offense really operate better within the high walls of the postseason with Ben Simmons on the ball? Does the presence of Markelle Fultz on the roster make it inevitable that McConnell will need to seek employment elsewhere?
All those were sure things Monday morning. None of them are now.
McConnell has one more year on his contract with the Sixers. He will be paid by somebody, and paid a lot. There is absolutely no reason for him to accept a low-ball extension here if that is what the organization offers. There is also no reason for the team to commit long-term and big money to McConnell if it is convinced Fultz will become what he was drafted to be. (Drafted No. 1, by the way, at the price of two first-round picks.)
That’s an awful lot of upheaval after 48 minutes of basketball, but it is merely the culmination of a season of consternation regarding Fultz and another season of mostly quiet competence from McConnell, as he played behind a guy who averaged 34 minutes per game.
If you were to release McConnell from what amounts to a minutes restriction, would games like Monday night’s blossom on a regular basis? You can be sure there are general managers around the league who would bet on that proposition. Soon enough, we’ll find out whether Bryan Colangelo is one of them, or if the team is too invested in its own narrative – Simmons as primary point guard, Fultz as future star – to deviate from that course.
It could be that nothing aside from McConnell’s rise will be a lasting residue from this series. In all probability, the thing will end Wednesday, as the Celtics hunker down at home and close the door. Even so, this latest twist is fascinating, both for the player who has traveled such a distance from nowhere to celebrity and for the team that has taken the exact same journey.