It was in November of 2011, and TJ McConnell, then a sophomore at Duquesne University, suited up in the visiting locker room of the Wildcats’ McKale Center. In a nationally televised match-up between his Dukes and the 16-ranked Cats, McConnell faced a crowd that he never dreamed would be cheering his name in two short years.
The Dukes fell to Arizona 67-59, but not before McConnell did some damage on the stat sheet, recording 9 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and a game-high 3 steals. After that game, McConnell was on Arizona’s head coach Sean Miller’s radar.
“I played alright. I could have played better,” McConnell said. “Obviously not good enough for us to win, but it was a great experience for me to play in front of that kind of crowd. I’d never played in front of that kind of a hostile crowd like at McKale. It’s intimidating, trust me.”
In his sophomore season at Duquesne, McConnell averaged close to 11 points, 5.5 assists and 3 steals per contest, good enough to land him All-Atlantic-10 and Atlantic-10 All-Defensive Team honors. For the once unwanted, undersized guard from Pittsburgh, it was time to see if he could bring his game to the next tier of Division I ball.
“After I decided I was gonna transfer, I sent out my release papers to schools me and my dad carefully sat down and planned out,” McConnell said. “My final two were Arizona and Virginia, and those two both reached out to me after I sent out my release papers. It was really close.”
You know the rest. McConnell chose Arizona, becoming the defensive motor of Arizona’s back-to-back Elite 8 appearances in 2014 and 2015. Leaving Duquesne, and his hometown of Pittsburgh, was no easy decision for McConnell, however, who had established a close bond with then-Dukes head coach Ron Everhart.
Everhart had recruited McConnell when he was just a 16-year-old playing for his dad, Tim McConnell, at neighboring Chartiers Valley High School.
“First off, it was incredibly hard for me to transfer because me and Coach Everhart at Duquesne had an incredible relationship,” McConnell said. “I didn’t transfer because of him by any means, I loved playing for him. It was my decision to try to just play at a higher level, it was nothing against the school or Coach Everhart—it was just me trying to play at a higher level. That’s just what I wanted to do.”
McConnell’s transition from mid-major to national powerhouse was seamless, but the question of if he could bring his stifling defense to the NBA remained a concern on draft night. McConnell was left off the draft board, leaving his future in jeopardy.
“I was kind of unsure how my future would go. But it was in my hands and I kind of said myself, I gotta go all-in in everything I do this summer and let the chips fall where they may,” McConnell said. “I think I did that to the best of my ability. I laid everything I had out there this summer.”
The Philadelphia 76ers agreed, offering the former First-Team All-Pac-12 guard a partially guaranteed contract.
McConnell is now throwing his bullet passes to the 2015 No. 3 overall pick Jahlil Okafor.
“I expected him to go out and dominate and he didn’t disappoint,” McConnell said. “He went out there and made the game look easy and made my job a lot easier. Me and him have a great relationship and it’s fun to play with him.”
Although grateful for Philly giving him a shot, McConnell knows that his mentality to prove he belongs can’t afford to waiver with the signing of his rookie contract. The kid that was under-recruited out of high school, doubted when he set foot in Tuscon, and passed on Draft night still lives inside McConnell.
“Obviously the NBA is different than any other thing or any other level, but I’ve been doubted since I was a freshman in high school. It’s kind of just put a chip on my shoulder throughout my playing career and kind of made me play harder, play with the mentality that I do every game,” McConnell said. “Just the mentality that I’m always going to have people saying that I’m not good enough, not quick enough, that I can’t do this. I know that’s always going to be there for me and the only thing for me to do is silence them with my play.”
McConnell knows he has a lot left to prove, but when his name is called at the Wells Fargo Center this winter, he’ll be ready.