The 76ers finished 10-5 in the month of January. I repeat: The Philadelphia 76ers finished 10-5 in the month of January. It is the first winning month in head coach Brett Brown's coaching career (this is his fourth season). Let's first acknowledge how big this is for a head coach who has traversed so many more valleys than peaks during the three years of tanking.
There are many reasons for the team's recent success over the last month or so, but if we were to pinpoint the engine for this turnaround, it would be the 76ers' defense, which has been top five (boasting a 104.5 defensive rating). Of course, it all centers around Joel Embiid, who has made an unprecedented impact as a rookie. Whenever Embiid is on the court, the 76ers have a 99.1 defensive rating, and when he is off, they have a 108 defensive rating. However, while JoJo is the driving force of the 76ers defense, there are other players on the roster — mainly in the starting lineup — who have had a hand in the chemistry beaker so far in the new year. Starting point guard TJ McConnell stands out as one of these players.
Yes, Timothy John McConnell.
McConnell captured the starting point guard spot from Sergio Rodriguez on December 30 against the Denver Nuggets, and since then he has run with it without even a hint of looking back. He has brought a hard-nosed defensive mentality to the position that is stark in contrast to the matador defense synonymous with Rodriguez. McConnell fights over screens, is pesky when he defends the ball handler full court and sticks to his man off the ball.
Since Brown has gone with the starting lineup of McConnell/ Nik Staukus/ Robert Covington/ Ersan Ilyasova/ Embiid, the Jazz have ranked second in Team Defensive Rating (90.3) among five-man lineups that have played at least 100 minutes. That stat right there shows you just how much of an impact Embiid has had playing with two below average defensive players. Covington and McConnell have provided some of the best switchy/perimeter defense the team has had in the last three years. In the last 15 games alone, McConnell has averaged 1.6 steals and three deflections per game.
Here is a trademark play McConnell has done all year that exemplifies his pesky motor on defense. After a made Sixer basket (or sometimes a miss), he'll linger in the backcourt only to surprise the opposing team who think they have an easy inbounds pass, and come up with a sneaky steal.
The cameraman should know by now to stop cutting to the player who just made the basket. . . .
Anotha one. *DJ Khaled voice*
You get the point, but here is one more.
To go along with his underrated defensive production, McConnell has been very efficient running the offense. As a starter, McConnell has posted a 4.19 assist to turnover ratio — averaging 9.3 assists and 2.2 turnovers per game, and has stayed within himself, making sure that everyone is in the right spot on offensive sets and having the team play at an uptempo pace off of opponent misses. With his effectiveness running an offense, probing the baseline and keeping his dribble alive a second longer when involved in the pick-and-roll, McConnell has offset his inability to be a consistent scorer and floor spacer so the opposing defense isn't playing five on four.
In transition, McConnell has always done a good job keeping his head up and knowing which teammates are filling the proper lanes. Here he delivers a nice semi-cross court pass to the corner to RoCo for the three ball.
He has also done a good job finding players cutting to the basket, whether it's big rolling, ducking to the rim or finding wing cutters like Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Covington, as displayed in these series of clips.
A lot of 76ers' players have made unexpected improvements in their games this year. McConnell is no different, and while he is still not a championship caliber point guard or a starter, he has long proven he belongs in the NBA. Embiid stating that McConnell has been the MVP in this winning stretch is a bit of an over exaggeration on his part. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to not give credit where credit is due, and McConnell has undoubtedly had a sizable hand in the 76ers' recent renaissance.