Game Preview | After Hard-Working Off-Season, McConnell Having "Fantastic" Start

by Brian Seltzer
Sixers.com Reporter

Scene Setter:

CAMDEN, NJ - Perhaps at no time of the year are scraps more popular and prevalent than in the days right after Thanksgiving, so we’ll cover a few here, as we look ahead to the 76ers’ match-up with the Orlando Magic (7:00 PM EST; NBC Sports Philadelphia, 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network).

We’ll get to Brett Brown’s thoughts on his team’s steadily improving defense in a moment, but first, let’s examine how the head coach plans to deal with the absence of Ben Simmons (left elbow soreness).

McConnell Tapped to Fill-In

In his two-plus seasons as a Sixer, T.J. McConnell has done nothing short of earning the affinity and, arguably even more important, trust of Brett Brown and his coaching staff.

As a result, and on the heels of two especially effective performances to start the week, the 25-year old is on track to start Saturday in place of Simmons, the dynamic rookie point man who ranks fifth in the NBA in assists (7.7 apg) and third in steals (1.9 spg).

To begin the week, McConnell assumed a key role in a pair of Sixers wins. Against the Utah Jazz Monday, he was influential in helping the bench seize control of the game, and finished with 8 points (3-6 fg) and 5 assists. Then Wednesday, versus the Portland Trail Blazers, McConnell netted 13 points (5-7 fg), his second-highest total of the season, to go with 7 dimes.  

“He just continues to get better,” Brown said Friday, after the Sixers practiced at their training complex in Camden. “We’re always challenging him to take his natural enthusiasm and his passion, and continue to polish his game.”

This means always keeping ball security, situational matters, and when to spread touches around in mind  

“We get how hard he plays,” said Brown, a former point guard himself. “I think he’s doing fantastic.”

Through 17 contests, McConnell accounts for 6.5 points, 5.3 assists, and 3.3 rebounds in 23.9 minutes per game. Similar to his first two campaigns, he remains an efficient passer (4th in the league with a 39.8 assist ratio), while bringing excellent pace to the offense (4th in the league with a pace of 107.88).

An encouraging development from the season’s first five weeks is that there are early signs of McConnell possibly expanding his range. He most definitely devoted enough time towards doing so, working extensively on his 3-point shot this summer.

The coaching staff recommended a few tweaks, which included McConnell bringing the ball closer to his body, identifying proper shot pockets on the court, and fine-tuning his pre-shot preparation. 

“I think the work, plus the mechanics, has helped make him a little more confident than he used to be,” said Brown, “and I think we’re starting to see some of those results.”

“I know I haven’t taken many [threes], but it’s good to see them go in,” said McConnell, who so far is 7 for 13 from 3-point territory. “I’ve put in the work, and I just got to continue to put in the work.”

McConnell will have a longer leash to do so Saturday, with Simmons unavailable. Based on the sound of it, the Sixers seem more than comfortable turning to McConnell as a relief option.

“If we stick to what we’ve been taught, our system, I think we’ll be fine,” Joel Embiid said. 

Brown Proud of Defense

Should the Sixers continue playing defense like they have the past few games, they’ll certainly have a better chance of being “fine” Saturday versus Orlando, which brings to the second storyline “scrap” we’ll cover in this piece.  

In Friday’s Notebook, we touched upon the Sixers’ promising ascent in the NBA’s defensive ranks. That the team presently sits eighth in the league with a 101.8 defensive rating hasn’t been lost on Brett Brown.

The defense-first head coach attributes the Sixers’ success to a “team mindset” that revolves around accountability, and a cast of players who, collectively, form a rotation with difference-making size, length, and height.

“That’s a number we’re proud of,” said Brown, referring to the Sixers’ statistical standing. “It’s taken years to grow that, and that’s also with the fact that we played Golden State (#1-NBA 114.3 offensive ratg) twice and Houston (#2-NBA 112.0 offensive rating) twice. To still hold that rank, after playing the two best offensive teams, we are proud of that, and it allowed us to win our last two games.”

Opponent Outlook:

The Orlando Magic’s (8-11) auspicious start, which had them at 8-4 through the first three weeks of the season, probably feels like a distant memory, at this point. They’ll take the hardwood Saturday having dropped 7 consecutive tilts. Aaron Gordon, picked fourth in 2014, is putting up career numbers, with averages of 17.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game. He’s also shooting an impressive 41.5 percent from three (34-82 3fgm).

Follow Along:

Video: NBC Sports Philadelphia / NBC Sports app

Audio: 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network