Everyone grows up with the hope of getting an opportunity to reach their dream, but only a few of us are lucky enough to feel the gratification that comes from actually reaching it.Sixers point guard T.J. McConnell realized what that felt like on Wednesday night in a thrilling 98-97 victory over the rival New York Knicks.
McConnell, who went undrafted out of Arizona in last year’s NBA draft, hit a game-winning turnaround jumper over the outstretched arm of Knicks star forward Carmelo Anthony to send the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center into a frenzy as he jumped in the air with a Rocky-esque fist pump.
"He seized the moment, grabbed an opportunity and he ran hard with it,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “The preparation prior to that opportunity happening for him was A-plus. … To see him be rewarded, it’s a great story.”
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Just like his debut into the NBA, McConnell was largely an afterthought to start this season. Although he had a promising rookie season where he averaged 6.1 points (15th among rookies) and 4.5 assists (second among rookies) per game, many looked at McConnell as a fringe player on the roster who was on the verge of being cut. The Sixers signed veteran point guards Jerryd Bayless and Sergio Rodriguez in the offseason and it seemed as though his services would not be needed in an already crowded backcourt.
An injury to Bayless’ wrist in the preseason, which required surgery last month, opened the door again for McConnell, who has continued to silence his skeptics. In the Sixers past five games, McConnell is averaging 8.8 points and 9.2 assists as the Sixers have gone 4-1 in that span.
“It was a big shot,” Sixers center Joel Embiid said. “The last couple games that he’s been starting, he’s been carrying us as a point guard. He’s been doing the job to make sure everybody plays together and the offense flows.”
If the past five games are any indication, his spot in the starting lineup isn’t going away anytime soon. He’s averaging 35.6 minutes per game, while his counterpart Rodriguez has averaged just 13 minutes per game in the two games since he’s returned from injury. If anyone should be watching his back it’s Rodriguez, as the team added point guard Chasson Randle to a 10-day contract of the Westchester Knicks to compete for minutes on Tuesday.
“I just, I’m still, you know, just, I can’t even think of a word for it,” McConnell said. “It feels really good. It feels even better to get a win.”
With Ben Simmons expected to return from injury soon, McConnell knows that his time as a starter isn’t guaranteed forever. But his audition so far has drawn rave reviews and there’s a sense that there is more to come.