Philadelphia 76ers

T.J. McConnell's grind to Sixers' starting guard makes him 'Symbolic Sixer'

T.J. McConnell's grind to Sixers' starting guard makes him 'Symbolic Sixer'

After weeks of silliness on the part of the local pro basketball franchise -- the ham-handed handling of injuries, the peddling of key players for pennies on the dollar, etc. -- we seem to have come full circle.

We seem to be left with T.J. McConnell, Symbolic Sixer.

He represented optimism -- remember those two game-winning jumpers? -- when the team was showing a pulse in January.

But now he represents a team trying to hang on to … something. Respectability? Dignity? Hope?

Who better to do so? This is a guy who was one of four healthy point guards the Sixers took to training camp in 2015 after he went undrafted out of Arizona.

He’s the only one left.

And this is a guy who appeared to be the third man on the totem pole as this season dawned, behind Jerryd Bayless and Sergio Rodriguez.

He’s been the starter since Dec. 30.

"He doesn’t go away," coach Brett Brown said before Saturday’s 136-106 loss to Detroit. "He just doesn’t go away."

Even so, Brown reiterated his plan to open next season with Ben Simmons at the point. But, you know, see above.

"He’s a survivor," said T.J.’s dad, Tim (listen to Zoo's Views podcast for Marc Zumoff's one-on-one interview with McConnell).

The elder McConnell -- he’s Timothy John Sr., his son Timothy John Jr. -- just finished up his 24th season as the coach at Chartiers Valley High School in Western Pennsylvania, having once had T.J. on his roster. Now Tim watches every Sixers game, whether live (he hopes to attend 15 this season, in either Philadelphia or Cleveland) or on TV.

He sees in his son what everyone else sees -- a guy who has grown into the job.

"A guy," Tim said, "that feels like he belongs."

CSN Philly studio analyst Jim Lynam, the former Sixers coach, remembers the point-guard free-for-all in the ‘15 camp, one that included not only McConnell but Isaiah Canaan, Scottie Wilbekin and Pierre Jackson. (Two other points, Tony Wroten and Kendall Marshall, were out with knee injuries. They’re gone, too.)

At that point, Lynam said, McConnell didn’t display the same attributes he does now -- the ability to invade the lane and create, the willingness to defend 94 feet, the leadership, the certitude.

His development in all those areas has led Lynam to reach a greater truth.

"Given what’s happened over these past several seasons," he said, "I think the Philly Sixer fan identifies with this guy. He, in a way, epitomizes the climb that this team has been on."

The fans are not the only ones who can identify with him. Take Golden State coach Steve Kerr, who like McConnell played at Arizona. A second-round pick in 1988, Kerr played 15 NBA seasons and won five championship rings, three with Michael Jordan’s Bulls and two with the Tim Duncan’s Spurs.

Different player than McConnell -- Kerr was a lights-out shooter, not a pure point -- but same mentality.

"I always identify with the guys who kind of have to scrap and claw and maybe weren’t drafted or weren’t first-round picks," he said before the Warriors beat the Sixers last Monday. "I always kind of root for those guys, quietly."

And take Wizards coach Scott Brooks, who broke into the NBA with the Lynam-coached Sixers in 1988 as an undrafted free agent. In all, he manned the point for six teams over 10 seasons.

"He’s much, much better," Brooks said, comparing McConnell to himself before a recent game. "He makes game-winners; I never did."

Then again, Brooks deadpanned, "(Charles) Barkley never passed, so I could not."

And take one other point guard: Ish Smith, reacquired by the Sixers midway through last season when the coaching staff came to the realization that the rookie could not "walk down a game," as Brown likes to say.

"He’s taken the biggest step from his first year to his second year," said Smith, now with Detroit. "I’m proud of him." 

Smith knows McConnell well. They share a personal trainer and worked out together in the weeks and months leading up to the younger man’s rookie year. Smith also knows something about persistence; the Pistons are his 10th team in seven NBA seasons.

"Anything in life and the game, it’s just all about opportunities," Smith said, "and he was given a great opportunity. And he’s taken it and run with it."

Bayless was supposed to be the Sixers’ point guard this season, but that never materialized because of a wrist injury. Rodriguez started the first two months of the year, then rolled an ankle and never regained the job.

And about that walking-down-the-game thing: McConnell’s buzzer-beating jumpers, his first on any level of play, came against the Knicks on Jan. 11 and then vs. Magic on Feb. 9. He was playing so well -- as was the team, which went 10-3 in one stretch -- that there were reports that the Cleveland Cavaliers, in search of a backup point, wanted to trade for him. And that the Sixers turned them down.

Mull that a moment: The defending champs -- i.e., LeBron -- wanted him.

"I didn’t really pay attention to it," McConnell said before a game in early February, "because I knew if it happened, it’s going to happen. And if it didn’t, I’m not worried about it. I’m more focused on trying to get our team a win, and just playing here."

That very night the Sixers were leading Miami by five in the final half-minute. McConnell was streaking up the left side of the floor, just over midcourt, when he spotted Nerlens Noel -- perhaps you remember him -- flying toward the rim. McConnell’s alley-oop was true, Noel dunked and the Sixers won.

It seemed another sign of growth, of a play McConnell not only wouldn’t have made last year but one he wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to make since he wouldn’t have been on the court at that stage of the game. Not after Smith arrived. And McConnell didn’t disagree.

"If I saw it last year, who knows if I would have thrown it?" he said. "I’m just a little bit more experienced this year."

Lynam, who in addition to everything else is an old Saint Joseph’s point guard, understands as well as anyone.

"When these young guys, almost without exception, come in, you have to feel your way a little bit," he said. "Maybe you want to feel that (confidence) at the beginning, but guess what, until they do it, there’s a seed of doubt. That’s just human nature."

The doubts are gone. These days, with so many players of consequence injured or discarded, McConnell is introduced last at home games, an honor usually reserved for the biggest star.

Maybe, just maybe, the fans see something more when they see the Symbolic Sixer.

Maybe they see hope, persistence. Maybe they see possibilities, if only you continue to seek them out.

NBA Notes: Bulls bring back Doug Collins as special adviser

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NBA Notes: Bulls bring back Doug Collins as special adviser

CHICAGO -- Doug Collins has returned to the Chicago Bulls. Just not on the sideline this time around.

The rebuilding Bulls hired Collins on Tuesday to serve senior adviser of basketball operations, providing "an expert resource" for the front office and coaching staff.

Collins will report directly to executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson. General manager Gar Forman and coach Fred Hoiberg remain in their jobs.

"Doug will not be coaching," Paxson said. "Doug will not be a decision maker. None of the roles have changed."

While no one is getting fired at this point, Collins becomes another set of eyes for an organization that finally committed to a full rebuild after taking a patchwork approach in recent years (see full story).

Pelicans: Cunningham agrees to contract
A person familiar with the situation says the New Orleans Pelicans and forward Dante Cunningham have agreed on a one-year contract worth $2.3 million.

The person spoke to The Associated Press on Tuesday on condition of anonymity because the agreement, which was first reported by Yahoo, has not been announced.

The 6-foot-8 Cunningham spent the past three seasons in New Orleans, where he averaged 6.6 points and 4.2 rebounds in about 25 minutes per game last season.

The 30-year-old Cunningham has spent eight seasons in the NBA, beginning with Portland, which selected him in the second round of the 2009 draft out of Villanova.

Cunningham could start for New Orleans at small forward in a lineup that would feature DeMarcus Cousins at center, Anthony Davis at power forward, Rajon Rondo at point guard and Jrue Holiday at shooting guard.

Heat: Dragic retiring from Slovenia team
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia -- NBA guard Goran Dragic has confirmed he is retiring from the Slovenia team that won the European basketball championship.

Dragic says on Tuesday, "I achieved what I wanted, the gold medal, and this is the right time to bid farewell."

The 31-year-old Dragic led Slovenia with 35 points to beat Serbia 93-85 in the final on Sunday in Istanbul, earning the MVP award.

He says Slovenia's qualifying campaign for the 2019 world championship will start in November, and it would be impossible for him to play due to his professional duties with the Miami Heat in the NBA.

Tens of thousands of jubilant Slovenes greeted the new European champions on Monday in the capital of Ljubljana.

Give and Go: Who will be the Sixers' sixth man?

Give and Go: Who will be the Sixers' sixth man?

With training camp starting next week, our resident basketball analysts will discuss some of the hottest topics involving the Sixers.

Running the Give and Go are Sixers Insider Jessica Camerato and producer/reporters Matt Haughton and Paul Hudrick.

In this edition, we discuss who should be the Sixers' sixth man going into the 2017-18 season.

This role has become a hot topic since the Sixers finally have the pieces to put together a consistent starting five and establish a go-to sixth man. This summer I wrote an article on the starting lineup in which I projected Robert Covington to start and Dario Saric to come off the bench as the sixth man. The Sixers need Covington’s defensive presence at small forward and Ben Simmons likely will start at power forward while running the floor. Not every reader agreed in the comments section and the Saric-as-a-starter sentiment was echoed on social media. 

I still see Saric as the best fit for sixth man. This role is often filled by a starting-caliber player. Saric had 36 starts as a rookie, including all 25 games in which he played after the All-Star Break. Brett Brown wants the Sixers’ sixth man to be on the court to end games. Saric averaged more minutes (7.1) in the fourth than any other quarter last season. 

The key would be getting Saric to buy in to being the sixth man. Saric worked his entire career to be the best player he could be. He is his own toughest critic and became visibly disappointed when he had letdowns last season. There is a shift in mindset going from a starter to the first player off the bench. Saric can thrive in this role, but first he has to embrace it and not looking at it as a demotion. The sixth man can be just as valuable, if not more, than a starter. 

With a widely projected starting lineup of Joel Embiid, Robert Covington, JJ Redick, Markelle Fultz and Simmons, the Sixers’ sixth man would appear to be a lock as Dario Saric. After all, Saric is a strong all-around player and coming off an impressive rookie season.

However, that starting five may force Brett Brown to go in a different direction with his first man off the bench.

Sure, Brown’s opening group may have a lot of firepower, but it lacks a necessity of legitimate NBA teams: a proven floor general. With Fultz and Simmons in the backcourt, the Sixers have two players that have yet to take part in an NBA regular-season game. They also will be trying to adjust to playing off the ball (Fultz) and running the team as a full-time point guard (Simmons).

That’s why I believe Brown may opt to go with Jerryd Bayless as his first reserve to combat the expected growing pains of his rookie backcourt. Bayless didn’t exactly wow Sixers fans by playing in just three contests a season ago because of torn ligaments in his wrist, but the veteran still has 513 career games under his belt (29 in the postseason) and knows how to play both guard positions.

It may not be the preferred pick, but Bayless may be the necessary choice as sixth man if the Sixers hope to achieve their goals in the upcoming campaign.

I know it doesn't please some Sixers fans that Saric seems destined to come off the bench, but really, it's a great sign.

Saric has proven to be a good NBA player after a strong rookie campaign, but think about it. This roster suddenly has talent. People are getting giddy and talking playoffs. Do you know what playoff teams have? Good players coming off the bench. It's not a knock on Saric as much as it's a testament to how talented this roster has become.

I will say that Matt's idea of using Bayless as the team's sixth man is interesting. Brown puts such a heavy emphasis on the point guard position. He's referred to it as the hardest position to play in the NBA. And now he's turning the keys over to a 6-foot-10 player that's never truly played the position. 

In the end, I'm going Saric. He should come in and dominate most team's second units offensively. Plus his grit and energy are perfect for the role. The Sixers just have to hope he embraces it.