Markelle Fultz and T.J. McConnell are best friends. Imagine how bad it would be for the Sixers if they weren’t. | Mike Sielski
A fan favorite, McConnell could have undercut Fultz at any time. But their friendship gave the Sixers time to figure out whether Fultz could actually succeed in the NBA.
The most consequential friendship in Philadelphia basketball was put to the test one more time Monday night, and Brett Brown, Elton Brand, and the rest of the 76ers organization ought to be shaking T.J. McConnell's hand and thanking him every day for refusing to make a strange and tiresome problem worse than it already is.
McConnell is Markelle Fultz's closest friend on the Sixers. "It's not even a friendship," McConnell said. "He's more like a brother to me."
And the bond between them is all that has prevented the scenes that played out Monday and Tuesday, during and after the Sixers' 119-114 victory over the Suns, from spiraling into a crazier controversy.
Fultz's delicate psyche, particularly his mental block about shooting a basketball, has been a source of so many questions and so much concern about his future with the Sixers. Hell, it has raised doubts about his future in the NBA. And here came McConnell against the Suns, playing a productive and inspiring eight minutes as the backup point guard to Ben Simmons, spending more time on the floor than Fultz did.
Then came Tuesday morning, when Raymond Brothers, Fultz's agent, told the Sixers that Fultz wouldn't play or practice with the team until he saw a shoulder specialist, an ultimatum that belied all the available medical evidence about Fultz's physical health and that seemed even sillier once Fultz showed up at Tuesday's practice anyway.
From Bryan Colangelo's decision to sacrifice a first-round pick for the chance to draft Fultz to Brothers' misbegotten power play, Fultz's entire tenure with the Sixers has been fraught with uncertainty and mystery and disappointment. Brown gave Fultz 18 games to make a partnership with Simmons work, and the coach turned to McConnell again Monday, and so … now what?
If it's at all possible, Brand might have to trade Fultz for whatever he can get, just because this confused kid probably needs some closure, just because both Fultz and the Sixers might be better off if he were to start fresh somewhere else.
The truth, though, is that this entire mess could have been uglier. Imagine if Fultz, 20, and McConnell, 26, were colder to each other, if they were rivals and not friends. Fultz made a rapid rise from high school to the University of Washington to the No. 1 pick in the draft. McConnell was one of the most accomplished high school players in Pennsylvania history, a two-year starter at Arizona, an undrafted long shot who had to beg and claw for a shot with the Sixers.
Their paths to the pros couldn't have been more disparate, and it would have been natural for McConnell to resent Fultz, to regard him as a golden child who hadn't earned the right to usurp him.
But they hit it off the instant they met at last year's Utah summer league, choosing to focus not on those differences but on what connected them instead. From that moment, they could share memories about playing in the Pac-12, and McConnell could bust Fultz's stones about how the Wildcats always beat the Huskies, and Fultz's mother and sister could treat McConnell as if he, too, was their own flesh and blood, and the fact that the two competed for minutes at the same position never caused a cross word between them.
"It's always been like that," Fultz said. "As soon as I got here, he pushed me on the court, and I push him. Our relationship is more than teammates. We want to see each other do well."
"It's very sincere, the relationship," Brown said. "I see it. I live it. I'm in the same building with them. I think that it is maybe the thing, the respect and the friendship, that enables this not to be a situation that it could be."
Consider the power that McConnell could have wielded here, and consider his refusal to use it to his advantage. Whenever Fultz steps onto to the court or contemplates taking a jump shot, there is always applause at the Wells Fargo Center. But the cheers are restrained and encouraging, even condescending, as if the spectators are holding back because they know something embarrassing might happen.
For McConnell, though, the enthusiasm is full-throated and unconditional because of who he is and what he represents. As soon as he left the bench Monday, he received a standing ovation; the home crowd was never louder that night. He is the Great White Hope as Backup Point Guard, the fulfillment of every dream of every kid who treats every gym like it's heaven: If you play hard, if you're intelligent, if you're tough as rawhide, you can make it in the NBA.
That narrative, of course, sells McConnell's athleticism short. He has the foot speed and a quick-enough release on his shot to play in this league for a long time. Still, there's no doubt: He is the most beloved player on the Sixers, an underdog in a city that's a sucker for underdogs, and it would have been easy for him, after any game in which Fultz had struggled, to undercut him: I'm better than he is. I'm more experienced than he is. I'm stronger mentally than he is. I deserve to play more.
Those comments would have put Brown in an awful position. They would have threatened to divide the locker room and crush Fultz's confidence forever, and McConnell would have had most of the public on his side. Yes, he could have said those things, but he never did. Instead, at his locker late Monday night, with no idea of the demand that Brothers would make the next morning, he stood up, stayed loyal, and defended Fultz.
"He doesn't show his emotions," McConnell said. "He doesn't bother people with his problems. After everything he went through last year, you wouldn't know what was going on. You wouldn't know. He brings a smile and an energy and a charisma to the facility every day and is a great teammate. I just respect him and love him."
The Sixers have been lucky he does. McConnell gave them time to find a solution to the oddest problem in the NBA, to a No. 1 pick who forgot how to shoot, and somehow the only silver lining is a brotherly bond that survived intact. If Markelle Fultz's career with the Sixers never amounts to anything more, if this fiasco does indeed go down as a failure, the last person he can blame is his best friend.