Pacers

McConnell’s Magic Defies Logic

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T.J. McConnell is not like the others.

Generously listed at 6’1, 191 pounds, he is far from physically imposing and plays below the rim. Save elevating into consistent short-to-mid-range jumpers, TJ pretty much stays as low to the ground as possible. The only NBA guard with a lower percentage of three-point attempts is former teammate Ben Simmons. In an era where size, leaping ability and three-pointers reign supreme, McConnell is an outcast.

This outcast, though, is a weapon right atop several NBA statistical categories.

Lurk Steal

Opponents have to hate when McConnell matches up with them. He relentlessly picks up full court, sometimes waiting for his matchup to make a mistake– sometimes forcing them into one. Even before his matchup has the ball, TJ applies pressure. Maybe the best-kept secret in the NBA is McConnell’s inbounds lurk steal.

With more scoring in today’s NBA than in recent memory, players either take the ball out or outlet a rebound more often. Another feature of the modern Association is minimal backcourt pressure. Mix more take-outs and outlets with less pressure, and one can understand how lapses in judgment may happen at that spot. Between backcourt passers and passees, just one needs to slip up for TJ to strike. McConnell attentively, and with great effort, often does just that.

As shown in the video below, he is a seasoned veteran at this maneuver.

While fooling opponents is clearly nothing new to him, TJ is having a career year defensively, as he averages 26% more steals per minute this season than any of his six-year NBA career. Coincidentally (or not, think Fred VanVleet), TJ and his wife Valerie reportedly welcomed a baby into the world in January. His career year is producing eye-popping numbers, and looks like it extends off the court as well.

Tasty Metrics

Wrestler Scott Steiner once said, “The numbers don’t lie, and they spell disaster for you”. That is the essence of TJ’s effect on opponents.

Defense

McConnell leads the NBA in steal percentage, defined as “an estimate of the percentage of opponent possessions that end with a steal by the player when they were on the floor” (Basketball-Reference). TJ has an 26% higher metric than second place Larry Nance Jr. A 6’1 guard with a 6’0 wingspan leads the NBA in steal percentage- and by a wide margin. That is neat.

What TJ lacks in height, he makes up for with quickness, hustle and smarts. His aggressive ball pressure nearly always frustrates opponents, and often leads to turnovers. The following video from February 2nd shows McConnell hounding Ja Morant into a turnover.

On-ball pressure and general harassment are McConnell’s defensive calling cards. However, he is also adept at using his small frame to his advantage in the passing lanes (oxymoronic, yes). TJ often goes stealth, hiding in the trees on help-side, then darts out last-second in the passing lane for a steal or deflection. Using his speed and quickness, McConnell covers surprising amounts of court.

Quite honestly, from the couch, sometimes Indiana looks like they are playing 4-on-5 with TJ helping off his man. Perhaps opponents have a similar perspective, as TJ continues to rack up steals while helping. The following video shows McConnell doing these McConnell things.

TJ checks in at second in the league for steals per 36 minutes, only trailing Matisse Thybulle.  He is third league-wide in defensive box plus-minus, leading the likes of defensive juggernauts Ben Simmons, Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Between this paragraph’s aforementioned names, Thybulle is the shortest at 6’5, and also has the shortest wingspan at 6’11.

As a refresher, McConnell is listed at 6’1, with a 6’0 wingspan.

We see you, TJ.

Offense

Dimer

McConnell trails only James Harden in assists per 36 minutes. Of that top ten, only Chris Paul turns the ball over at a lower rate than TJ. McConnell leads all NBA bench players in assists per game. It seems he can pass. 

On top of everything, McConnell is efficient at what he does. He knows his strengths and plays to them. TJ far and away has the lowest usage rate of any point guard in the NBA. He takes smart shots, good care of the ball, and creates something from nothing. He pushes the pace as well as anyone in the league, but as indicated by his turnover statistics, is nearly always under control. Here is McConnell going 60 to zero and calmly finding the open man:

McConnell often gets his teammates good looks either on the break, in transition or using the pick-and-roll. Even at 4.5 PPG, TJ is a threat to score out of the P-n-R, and defenses respect his short shot. McConnell smartly uses this to his advantage, as seen against the Bucks.

Here, the original action was defended nicely, but TJ explored the space and got to his spot– forcing Bryn Forbes to bite and catching Brook Lopez ball watching. Easy 2.

When the initial pick-and-roll action is not defended as well, McConnell skillfully places his passes in tight windows and shooting pockets. Passes in traffic are difficult– especially in the paint, where there is usually tougher resistance. One great example of such a play can be found in Indiana’s matchup with Memphis.

At the time of this pass, 4 (four) Grizzlies are in the paint, and the other a step away, guarding the ball. Regardless, TJ saw a clean — albeit tiny — window, and threaded the needle right into Myles Turner‘s shooting pocket for two. Such passing accuracy is exceedingly rare, especially while on the move like McConnell. It is also worth mentioning that after the assist, he got right into Morant and disrupted the Grizzlies into forcing someone else to bring the ball up. This is TJ at his best.

A selective bucket

Scoring is generally best left to his teammates, but McConnell will go on speedy spurts in which he beats the defense down the floor or gets to his mid-range spots. He knocks them down, too. Both this season, and for his career, TJ shoots above 50% from the field. He pushes the pace but does not force the issue. Shots 15 feet and in are TJ’s specialty– strange for a player of his height.

Again, though, McConnell is not like the others.

Here, a speedy-but-under-control TJ beats the city of Philadelphia down the floor for an easy deuce.

In that same January 31 matchup against Philly, McConnell knocked down a couple of his patented short-to-mid-range jumpshots. If he gets to his spot, his shot is lethal. Due to his size, he has to keep the ball high and elevate quickly– he does this to a tee. The vast majority of his jumpers come within the flow of the offense, but on occasion he is called upon to bail out Indiana when faced with a short clock. TJ delivered quite nicely here, where he beat the first quarter buzzer over Tyrese Maxey‘s 6’8″ wingspan.

Intangibles

This season, McConnell posts better win shares per 48 minutes than Donovan Mitchell, Zach LaVine and Brandon Ingram (among hundreds of others). Maybe most important to his game is that he knows his limitations. Outside shooting is not his strength, but he finds an edge. He turns the cushion that defenders often give him on the perimeter, into a runway, as he does here against Charlotte.

He quickly builds up speed and attacks with a great change of pace. With space between the defender and himself, TJ uses his wheels and quickness to turn a weakness into an advantage. This will not always work, and zone defenses (among other schemes) stifle such a strategy.

Luckily, McConnell is smart and picks when to attack. TJ is so smart, in fact, that he acts as an extension of the coaching staff, on the court.

Below is TJ recently coaching up a teammate for an easy bucket. Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren often subs in McConnell, for TJ to put his teammates in position for a play. It is clear that McConnell has the full trust of the Indiana coaching staff.

Two more things about TJ McConnell: he always hustles, and has a nose for the ball like few others. As seen earlier in his steal highlights, TJ is ready to sacrifice his body at the drop of a ball. Being so speedy low to the ground, and smart, opponents have a hard time securing loose balls before McConnell.

Here, he anticipates a loose ball and swoops in before diming Myles Turner for a breezy dunk.

The following video, though it is from last year, was too TJ to exclude. Pacer fans, who are comparatively odd to see in the stands given the current state of NBA attendance, clearly enjoy what McConnell brings.

Bottom line: you want TJ McConnell on your team. He is both effective and efficient at what he does for the Pacers, and the team seems much better with him on it. Sure, his frame and outside shooting ability pose limits, but all NBA players have weaknesses. By all accounts he seems like a terrific communicator and excellent teammate. The following video provides a sense of his charisma and personable nature.

https://twitter.com/Pacers/status/1301598334990213120

Closing Remarks

McConnell is different, and that is a good thing in his case. He will never be a 20-point-per-night scorer. He will be, however, a smart player who knows his strengths and role, doing so at a truly elite level. Each player cannot score 20 points per game or launch 3’s if the team wants to win.

On the season, TJ averages 20.8 minutes, 4.5 points, 6.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game. He has established an important and effective role in a winning Indiana rotation, and done so impressively right at the top of several statistical categories, among future Hall of Famers.

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