It looks like T.J. McConnell’s time as a 76er is up, and he’s mostly OK with it.
McConnell has played in more games for the Sixers the last four years than anyone else. He’s the last of the 10-72 crew; went from undrafted free agent to fan favorite to that wild Celtics playoff game last year to head cheerleader this season.
“I was just thinking about it [Sunday], walking into PCom four years ago not knowing if I even belonged in the NBA,” he said, referring to the Sixers prior practice facility on City Line Avenue. The team shared a facility with a medical college back then. Today, they have an impressive home in Camden all to themselves with statues of team legends out front.
“This organization, this city, the fan base stuck with me. I don’t think I could ever repay them,” McConnell reflected. “I can’t put it into words how I feel.”
McConnell will be a free agent on July 1. Theoretically, he could be back with the Sixers, but the financial reality is that’s probably not going to happen. McConnell likely will get offered more money to move on than the Sixers could care to give to keep him. McConnell made $1.6 million this season.
“Unless you’re a star,” he said earlier this season, “you rarely stay with one team.”
On the Sixers’ list of chores this season — which include decisions on three starters and the top four players off the bench — McConnell is somewhere between pick up a gallon of milk and take the dog to the vet.
“Obviously, we have a lot of free agents on this team,” said McConnell, who played just 8.3 minutes in the postseason. “There’s just the feeling of the unknown. I obviously would love to be here. I have so much love for this city, the fans, the organization and being here is something I would really like to happen.”
McConnell endeared himself to coach Brett Brown (“I love the guy”), his teammates and the town with relentless hustle and the exuberance of someone trying daily to prove he belonged in the best basketball league in the world. He played in 162 games in his first two seasons. The Sixers lost 125.
But then Philadelphia broke through with a 50-win season last year and McConnell’s performance in Game 4 against Boston in the second round was his career highlight here. He had 19 points, eight rebounds, five assists and zero turnovers. It was the only game of the series the Sixers won.
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But The Process kept churning and old chums such as Dario Saric and Robert Covington were traded away while stars such as Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris were added.
Butler, particularly, cut into McConnell’s minutes when he was inserted to be the second point guard behind Ben Simmons.
“As a competitor it sucks,” explained McConnell, a future head coach if ever there was one. “But as hard as this is for me, I thought it was a brilliant move by coach to play Jimmy as the backup [point guard] and put the ball in his hands. He was a difference-maker throughout the entire playoffs. It hurt my minutes, but we played really well. [Sometimes you have to] say what’s best for the team is best for the team and move on.”
McConnell turned 27 in March, so coaching is not the next stop in his career. Whether it’s here or elsewhere, he’ll find a spot.
“I obviously know I belong in the NBA,” he said. “I can’t worry about what other people say. I just try to focus on improving each year. I know I belong. It’s just about improving each summer and getting better.”