PORTLAND, Ore. – Watching T.J. McConnell interact and joke around with teammates and staff members at both the practice facility and the Wells Fargo Center, it’s hard to imagine this could be his final season with the 76ers.
“I built up so much equity with this organization and this city, the people,” said McConnell, who signed with the Sixers as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Arizona on Sept. 22, 2015.
He’s grown to love his apartment and has a comfort thing with playing in front of Sixers fans. There’s a part of the Pittsburgh native that will be disappointed if he doesn’t re-sign with the team in free agency this summer.
“But I’ve heard this numerous times, ‘That’s life in the NBA,, " he said. “Unless you are a star, you rarely stay with one team.”
The Sixers are expected to see how the season plays out before deciding on whether to retain McConnell past this season -- the final season of his contract -- according to a league source.
The two sides did discuss a contract extension after last season and were unable to work out a deal. So McConnell is playing on a non-guaranteed $1.6 million salary this season. He’ll become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 if the Sixers don’t extend his contract.
“I’m trying to win us as many games as we can,” McConnell said, “and I know our whole team is. I’ll cross that [free-agency] bridge when I have to.”
On Sunday, his Sixers took a 23-13 record into their game against the Portland Trail Blazers.
McConnell thrives in his role as the high-energy and heady backup to point guard Ben Simmons. The 6-foot-2, 190-pounder was fourth on the team in assists at 3.4 per game behind Simmons (8.1), Joel Embiid (3.5) and Jimmy Butler (3.5) this season through Saturday. He had seven assists in each of the Sixers’ past three game and is averaging 6.0 points and 1.0 steal a game while shooting a career-best 54.7 percent this season.
He plays with a spirit that cannot be quantified on a stat sheet. McConnell was the main reason the Sixers forced a Game 5 in last season’s Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Celtics. He was thrust into the starting lineup with the Sixers dow three games to none and on the verge of elimination. McConnell responded by scoring 19 points on 9-for-12 shooting. He also had eight rebounds and five assists.
There will be a market for the fourth-year veteran. Teams have approached the Sixers about acquiring him in a trade. The Phoenix Suns did earlier this season. The Suns offered a second-round pick, and the Sixers declined.
During the 2016-17 season, the Cleveland Cavaliers wanted to put together a deal that would have sent Jordan McRae to Philly for McConnell. The Sixers declined that deal, too.
“T.J.’s reputation as a competitor and a teammate is now not a mystery around the league,” coach Brett Brown said. “People now understand who he is.”
Teams realize that he’s a floor general while running a team. McConnell has also improved his perimeter game.
“He has value,” Brown said. “He’s very important in my eyes to us.
“His history with the program, the cultural responsibility that he has, the bonding with many of our current players makes him extremely valuable.”