MEMPHIS - T.J. McConnell is smart enough to know how lucky he is to be one of 450 people in the world wha can call themselves an NBA player.
Following his senior season at Arizona in 2015, the 6-2 point guard was hoping to continue playing the game, but didn't know where, or who would request his services. After an impressive showing in summer league, the Sixers invited him to training camp and just couldn't seem to rid themselves of the hustler.
He appeared in 81 games last season, averaging 6.1 points and 4.5 assists in 19.8 minutes while the carousel of point guards continued to spin through the organization. This offseason, in an effort to secure the position, they signed Jerryd Bayless, envisioned to be the starter at the point, and Sergio Rodriguez, set to be his backup. With top draft pick Ben Simmons and his point guard skills, McConnell wasn't so sure of where he fit, or if. But injuries to Simmons (fractured foot) and Bayless (torn wrist ligaments) have opened up more playing time than McConnell could have imagined. Still, he knows nothing is a given for him in the NBA.
"For a guy like me, I don't think I'll ever have a set role wherever I play," said McConnell, averaging 3.3 points and 4.0 assists in 18 minutes going into Tuesday's game in Memphis. "I get that guys come in and you have to fight for a spot. I want to do whatever helps this team win, whether that be backup, third string or even fighting for a starting job.
"If it means coming off the bench and playing for five minutes, I'm going to come off the bench and play as hard as I can for that five minutes. If it's 16 minutes, I'll give all that I have. In no way, shape or form would I ever accept playing five minutes in a game. I just want to show the coaches that I'm too valuable to keep on the bench. However many minutes I'm out there, I'm playing as hard as I can no matter what and not being comfortable in my role."
McConnell knows having a long career in the league may be a longshot. Admitting that, for many in his position, is half the battle.
The Sixers announced that they have hired Elton Brand to the position of player development consultant. Brand, who played 17 years in the league, including four-plus with the Sixers, signed with the club this past September but announced his retirement just before the season began.
"It's making sure that I'm available to the players for what they need, both off the court and on the court," Brand said. "When I was coming up in this league I had a lot of veterans who helped me in so many ways. That's what I'm looking to do and that's what they've asked me to do."
Saric ups, downs
The early part of Dario Saric's NBA career has gone about exactly the way coach Brett Brown envisioned at the beginning of the season, when he spoke of what he expected of the 22-year-old Croatian.
Brown then spoke of Saric having to get used to opponents bigger, faster and stronger than any he has competed against. He also was concerned about Saric's health, as he was coming off his Euro League season, Olympic qualifying, then the Olympics.
Saric has been up and down, showing flashes of the player many envision him becoming, and also floundering the way rookies always do. Going into Tuesday's game, Saric had put together consecutive positive outings, posting 21 points and 12 rebounds against Boston on Saturday, 17 points and eight rebounds on Monday against Denver. Overall, he was averaging 9.7 points and 6 rebounds through the Denver game.
"He's hard on himself and I think sometimes he gets frustrated," Brown said. "He went from starting to coming off the bench. (Against Boston) I was happy that he got some of that swagger back, that belief back. I think that part of my intention going forward is to help move that along and grow what we started a few games ago against the Celtics."