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Confident T.J. McConnell thriving in reserve role for Sixers

McConnell is coming off back-to-back, double-digit scoring performances.

T.J. McConnell (left) and Amir Johnson after a McConnell steal and pass led to a Johnson dunk against the Houston Rockets.
T.J. McConnell (left) and Amir Johnson after a McConnell steal and pass led to a Johnson dunk against the Houston Rockets.Read more(Charles Fox/Staff Photographer)

HOUSTON – T.J. McConnell has come a long way from the guy who shed tears of joys after making the 76ers' roster as an undrafted rookie two seasons ago.

Back then, the reserve point guard hoped to remain on the roster. These days, McConnell knows he's a legitimate NBA player and expects to leave positive imprints in games.

"With each year, you get more confidence and learn a little bit more about the game and yourself," McConnell said.

Opponents are learning that he's a gritty player, who won't back down from anyone. McConnell is a solid defender with an improved three-point shot. He's also the Sixers' best pure point guard.

The 25-year-old is averaging 6.4 points, 4.7 assists, and 1.6 steals in 21 minutes per game. He's shooting 55.6 percent (5-for-9) on three-pointers.

"We can't dismiss him because we have some healthier players and veterans and so on," coach Brett Brown said. "He just always makes you pay attention."

The expectation this season was for McConnell to get limited minutes, if minutes at all.

[Oct. 15 Podcast: Keith Pompey says the Sixers shouldn't be afraid to play McConnell] 

That's because Ben Simmons and Jerryd Bayless are back after being sidelined last season with injuries. The Sixers also selected another point guard in Markelle Fultz with the first overall pick in June's NBA draft.

However, Fultz is sidelined indefinitely with scapular muscle imbalance and soreness in his right shoulder. He was supposed to be the team's starting shooting guard and back up Simmons at point guard. Bayless was scheduled to provide instant offense off the bench in a combo-guard role.

Instead, he became the starting shooting guard while McConnell assumed the backup point guard spot due to Fultz's injury.

After playing the first four games, the Sixers shut Fultz down on Wednesday. That has enabled McConnell to get extended minutes in the last three games.

The Western Pennsylvania native has made the most of them.

McConnell had 11 points while making all three of his three-point attempts in Monday's 115-107 victory over the Houston Rockets. He also blocked two shots, tying his career high.

That performance came two days after McConnell scored a season-high 15 points on 7-for-10 shooting to go with eight assists at Dallas. And he finished with six points, a season-high nine assists and a career-best six steals against the Rockets last Wednesday.

"As long as I'm here, I'm trying to do my role to the best of my ability no matter what it is," McConnell said. "That's up to the coaches to decide. And that's pretty much it."

But McConnell's success in any role shouldn't come as a surprise.

He took the starting position from Sergio Rodriguez last season while Simmons and Rodriguez were sidelined.

"I think the opportunity he had last year just catapulted his confidence. It catapulted his game," Brown said of McConnell's 51 starts. "He was our starting point guard. He closed out big games.

"That experience set the stage for this year, [his personal] expectations changed."