Twenty months ago, TJ McConnell was almost not invited the draft combine, something that really doesn’t bode well for a player’s pro career. Now McConnell, a bulldog of a guard with little athleticism, is starting for an NBA team – the streaking Sixers who are becoming one of the feel-good stories of the regular season. It’s been quite a ride for the Pittsburgh-born guard and he talked about it with HoopsHype.
Is this the happiest you’ve been in your basketball career?
TJ McConnell: I’m extremely happy. I know a lot of people thought I would never accomplish this. To be able to make it to the best league in the world is an honor. I love everything about it.
How confident were you about your prospects of playing in the NBA when you finished your college career?
TJM: I knew there was a slight chance of maybe making it into the NBA, but I thought I could make it professionally no matter what. I told myself, “Why can’t I make it in the NBA? I’ve been overlooked my whole life, I’m just going to try my best wherever I’m at.” I was open to playing overseas if it came to that, though.
I remember you were one of the last invites to the draft combine back in 2014.
TJM: I was the very last one and kind of had to pay my way to get there, but I said to myself there was not going to be another opportunity. So I jumped on a plane and flew there, just to play as hard as I could because I knew how big of a deal it was.
When you were competing against other draft prospects at the combine and workouts, did you feel like you belonged?
TJM: I was there and I was not thinking about whether I was going to be drafted or could hang with them. I went hard on the drills and on the five-on-five I tried to run my team and show what I could do.
When you didn’t get drafted, were you upset or were you kind of expecting it?
TJM: I didn’t go thinking I was going to get drafted, but I thought maybe a team would take a chance on me. Didn’t happen, so I told myself that God works in mysterious ways and everyone has their own path in this league. I said I was going to create my own. The Sixers called right away and I couldn’t be happier to play in Philadelphia. There were a few other teams interested, but I thought Philly was the best fit and so did my agent. We jumped right on it.
So you go to camp and you end up making the team. How good did it feel to be able to tell your people you had made the opening-day roster?
TJM: When we started, we had like five point guards and the odds were really against me, so I said, “I’ve really got nothing to lose at this point” and went as hard as I could and made the team. I haven’t looked back since. The first person I called was my father, who was also my high school coach and he was very emotional. Then I called my mom and it was a very emotional time. I called my friends and they celebrated for me since I couldn’t do it myself because I was in the preseason. It was just a very happy moment for my and my family.
There’s been a lot of player movement in Philadelphia with guys in and out all the time. When you’re on a contract that’s not guaranteed, does that add to the stress – perhaps thinking it could be you the next time?
TJM: Yeah, it can. But it depends on how you look at it. I kind of look at it as an opportunity for me to play as hard as I can every day. Fight every day like it’s your last, that’s how I try to play. You can’t control what’s out of your hands. That’s kind of what I focus on.
You have mentioned Matthew Dellavedova in the past as a player you look up to. When you see a guy like that appreciated and getting paid like he did last summer, what do you think?
TJM: That’s awesome for him. He definitely deserves it. But like I said, I can’t really focus on that. When you start to focus on other contracts, that’s going to put pressure on yourself. You just control what you control on the floor and the rest will take care of itself.
How’s being around Joel Embiid on a daily basis? Is he the funny guy he appears to be?
TJM: He is. He brings a very positive energy and everybody loves being around him. How could you not? He is, in my opinion, an All-Star in his rookie year. He’s been really, really good. He should make it. He’s the main reason why our team has been successful and he continues to show people why.
He’s talking about making the playoffs this year. Do you think that’s a realistic option?
TJM: It’s early in the season right now, but he’s got a lot of confidence on our team. We are playing great basketball right now and we need to continue doing that and see what happens down the road.
Embiid is on social media a lot, but you’re not. At all. Why’s that?
TJM: I try to stay off social media. Unless it’s a sponsorship or something like that, I don’t find it useful. I kind like to keep myself private. For me, it just doesn’t make sense and I stay off it.