AS T.J. McCONNELL and the Sixers' 2015-16 edition slogged through a 10-win season and the top of the lottery, McConnell became more and more puzzled about why their coaches didn't chastise them more often when they played lousy defense.
"Coach Pierce," he said, "you never really get mad and yell at us when we make mistakes defensively."
Lloyd Pierce, the Sixers' defensive specialist, replied: "Well, T.J., you've only been in the NBA for four months. I can't expect you to know our opponents' set, the coverage we're supposed to use against the set and the rotations behind it when they run the plays. A year from now, I expect you to know it."
A year later, McConnell knows it. And he's not getting yelled at very often.
McConnell was an undrafted free-agent rookie who made the team less because of his own abilities than because former general manager Sam Hinkie willfully sabotaged the team by refusing to sign a viable point guard. Hinkie now is the former general manager. McConnell still has a job.
A 6-2 scrapper from the University of Arizona, McConnell turned off his rookie turnover spigot, maximized his defensive capabilities and grabbed the starting job from Sergio Rodriguez this season when Rodriguez got hurt. With one game left in the season, he is averaging 6.9 points, 6.6 assists per game and 1.7 steals per game. Heading into Tuesday night's games, the steals tie him for 10th with Russell Westbrook and the assists tie him with Steph Curry for 12th. However, since he became a full-time starter Dec. 30, he has averaged 8.6 points, 7.8 assists and 1.8 steals. If you projected those stats as a starter over a full season, he would be tied for seventh in assists and steals, and he would be tied for third in steals among point guards.
Assists numbers depend more on teammates' efficiency than do steals, and, so, while McConnell might be a very good setup man, he has become a dangerous defender.
"He's grown to the point now that he immediately recognizes sets. He knows our coverages and defensive schemes," Pierce said. "And he knows when he messes up . . . or when someone else messes up."
What value can this possibly have for the Sixers? Head coach Brett Brown has said he will convert 7-foot rookie forward Ben Simmons into a point guard next season after he returns from a broken foot. The draft is lousy with guards. Jerryd Bayless last summer signed a three-year, $27 million contract to be the Sixers' point guard this season and next.
Think about it. If the Sixers really do want to win next season, who gives them the best chance? Simmons, a 7-foot, soon-to-be 21-year-old who has never played the position and who hasn't played in more than a year? A one-and-done rookie fresh out of college? Bayless, a combo guard who has started just 82 times in nine seasons?
One of those projects . . . or McConnell? He has started 67 times and played 161 games at point guard in the past two seasons for Brown, played 139 games in college, and understands and executes Brown's offense and defense.
McConnell might never take a team to a title, but do not underestimate Brown's lust for efficient defensive play; certainly, not in the first few months of a season with playoff expectations.
There is, of course, a difference between being a dangerous defender and being a lock-down defender, which McConnell is not. McConnell might lack the size and speed to completely muzzle John Wall or Westbrook, but in the 49 games since he became the starter, he has helped limit prolific point guards to less than 40 percent shooting nine times. Curry, the reigning MVP, went 15-for-46 his last two games against McConnell and the Sixers. Damian Lillard went 6-for-21 the last time at Portland on March 9, but did go 12-for-25 in Philly on Jan. 20.
"When you're playing superstars like that, they're going to get their own," McConnell said. "Just make it tough."
McConnell has learned to make it tough as much with his mind as with his body. He abandoned his habit of picking up every point guard baseline to baseline. In fact, he seldom bothers to harass the opposition until they are within shooting range.
"You can talk about outworking people, but you're going to pick up Chris Paul or John Wall fullcourt?" Pierce said. "Well, now it's going to be five-on-four going the other way. Their talent or speed trumps your work. "There's no need to pick up John Wall at halfcourt, because he can't score from there. You need to use all of your energy defending him once he gets below the three-point line. Defending some players outside the three-point line can hurt us tremendously."
It takes too much energy for too little return.
"As a starting point guard, you just can't do that," McConnell said. "I've learned you have to pick your spots."
That means being a pest when you're on the ball. You might crash through a handoff or simply deny an opponent space - anything to disrupt the flow.
"When he's on the ball, he's probably the best on our team at getting deflections. We promote active hands, deflections, being into bodies, forcing a guy to his weak hand, and even something like making him pass with his weak hand," Pierce explained. "You've got Kemba Walker; you want to send him left, and we want to have him finish or pass over length, over high hands. If he goes right, he does whatever the wants. It's a little bit harder for Kemba to make a lefthanded pass. That's an opportunity for T.J. to be very aggressive there."
Picking your spots also means putting yourself at the right spot when your man doesn't have the ball, said Pierce: "When T.J.'s in the right position, it might take away a pocket pass or a skip pass to a shooter. And it might turn into a steal."
McConnell has become so adept at recognizing what the teams want to do that he teases them into doing it.
"A good weakside defender is attentive and aware of the set the opponent is running," Pierce said. "When they're looking to throw back to J.J. Reddick or Klay Thompson, bait them and shoot the gap for a steal."
That's exactly what happened in the first quarter Saturday against the Bucks. Greg Monroe threw a lazy pass to designated three-point shooter Mirza Teletovic. McConnell was defending another player and facing away from Monroe, but McConnell knew Monroe wanted to make that pass. So, McConnell left his own man, quickly spun into the passing lane and caught it as if it were intended for him. He was fouled on the resulting fastbreak.
He thinks on his feet, too. In the second quarter, after a switch, he fronted 6-11 Giannis Antetokounmpo. It looked ridiculous, but it was McConnell's only hope. Sure enough, the Bucks floated a lazy pass that McConnell stole.
"I know what I bring to the table," McConnell said. "I'm not going to try to be a person I'm not."
"That," said Pierce, "is a tremendous amount of growth."