Arizona Basketball

Philly is finest for former Arizona Wildcats guard McConnell in pursuit of NBA career


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A familiar sight with T.J. McConnell on the court, passing to a teammate, generating the offense

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LAS VEGAS, Nev. — An NBA beat reporter informed me Friday as many as 15 teams wanted T.J. McConnell on draft night once the two rounds were completed a couple of weeks ago.

San Antonio was one of the most interested but Philadelphia offered more of an incentive to McConnell financially. The 76ers presented a guaranteed contract of $100,000 to play in the NBA Summer League at Salt Lake City and Las Vegas and to participate in training camp in October.

If McConnell makes the regular-season roster and is with the 76ers past January, he will take home at least $400,000 overall for the 2015-16 season. No other team offered one-quarter of that amount up front for the Arizona star like Philadelphia.

“I saw what Philadelphia was trying to do and I wanted to be a part of that,” McConnell said Friday night after the 76ers’ practice for the Las Vegas NBA Summer League at UNLV’s North Gym.

“They showed a tremendous amount of interest in me after the draft was over and it was hard to turn down a guy like Coach (Brett) Brown and (general manager) Sam (Hinkie). They’re great people trying to do something special here and I want to be part of that.”

Philadelphia is investing in McConnell (6’2″ and 188 pounds) because of the 76ers’ tenuous situation at point guard. McConnell and lottery pick Jahlil Okafor are the only rookies who are on both Summer League rosters in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.

Former Washington player Tony Wroten, listed as a shooting guard, is a possibility at point guard but he is trying to come back from knee surgery last season. Ish Smith is an unrestricted free agent.

Isaiah Canaan, acquired from Houston in a trade in February, is 6’0″ and has yet to establish himself as an everyday NBA point guard.

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T.J. McConnell will play again against D’Angelo Russell on Saturday in the NBA Summer League

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Hinkie, who engineered that trade to bolster Philadelphia’s back court, is a firm believer in Canaan. But he also respects the leadership qualities of McConnell, whom he personally saw numerous times scouting Arizona’s talent over the last two seasons.

“The first thing that you see from him is that he understands his role,” said Sixers assistant Billy Lange to Philly.com. “He understands what he should do as a point guard. He’s setting the floor and the table for people. He communicates.”

Philadelphia’s belief in McConnell’s ability gave the former Arizona guard confidence to handle the challenge of starting and playing significant minutes in the NBA Summer League games at Salt Lake City.

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The 76ers begin play in the Las Vegas Summer League on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. Tucson time. McConnell will go against Los Angeles Lakers rookie D’Angelo Russell, whom he contained defensively when Arizona beat Ohio State in the Round of 32 of the NCAA tournament.

In three games at Salt Lake City, McConnell averaged 6.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists while playing an average of 29.7 minutes. He uncharacteristically had nine turnovers to go with his nine assists and he struggled from the floor before making four of his eight attempts from the field against Utah on Thursday.

Overall, McConnell drew praise from the media who covered the event for the leadership he showed while running Philadelphia’s offense.

“It was good to get acclimated with all the coaches,” McConnell said of his experience at Salt Lake City. “I wanted to get acclimated with these coaches. It’s good. I wouldn’t say I got ahead, but I got my feet wet for this (Las Vegas) summer league. It was positive for me to play the games and play in the atmosphere that we did.

“Every day I’m just going to learn something new and that’s not going to change. I’m going to come in with the mindset that I have stuff to learn. I’m not a know-it-all. I need to keep being a sponge and absorbing all the information that I get.”

T.J. McConnell continues to get encouragement from Sean Miller in his brief time in the NBA Summer League

McConnell acknowledges that he has “a lot of room for improvement”, which can be said of most prospects here at the Summer League. He is assured that Philadelphia’s staff will work with him as he adapts to the next level.

“Our coaches in Salt Lake were unreal,” he said. “Coach Lange was our head coach. He and I really connected. I really liked playing for him and I know it will be the same here.

“I love the coaches here and I love the training staff and the weight staff. They’re all just good people and I love it here.”

That kind of love is similar to what McConnell experienced at Arizona, a result of the belief Sean Miller showed in him from the time he transferred from Duquesne in 2012. His maturity going from the Atlantic 10 to the Pac-12 created respect from his teammates, a strong bond that time will not break.

He said dinner plans in Las Vegas are in store with Nick Johnson and possibly Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson.

Nick Johnson is here with Houston. Ashley is also proving himself as an undrafted free agent with Atlanta. Hollis-Jefferson begins play with Brooklyn in the Las Vegas Summer League on Saturday after playing earlier in the week in Orlando. Stanley Johnson may visit Las Vegas. The Detroit Pistons are not part of the Las Vegas Summer League.

“Coach Miller texted me and told me to keep playing hard and do what I do and I’ll be fine,” he said. “Everyone knows my relationship with Coach Miller, so I don’t think I’ll lose contact with that guy.

“I talk to the guys a little bit. I think we’re all going to meet up here soon to get some dinner, so it will be good to catch up.”

McConnell is hoping he can catch up with them during the NBA season when they play the 76ers. The way things are developing for him, don’t count out that scenario.

ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He has also written articles for Bleacher Report and Lindy’s College Sports.

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