‘I make it miserable’: TJ McConnell and the art of the NBA plague | Indiana Pacers
TJ McConnell, a 6-foot-1 backup point guard for the Indiana Pacerscelebrate the pressure.
“Where I’m from,” McConnell tells the Guardian ahead of his team’s late-December matchup (and eventual win) against the Boston Celtics, “the N.B.A not a possibility for most guys. It’s been a crazy ride.”
The 30-year-old hooper from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who is playing in his eighth NBA season, entered the league. undrafted and unannounced. McConnell joined the Philadelphia 76ers before the 2015 season after impressing in summer league and has been a mainstay in the pros ever since. He’s been with the Pacers since 2019. But while his career averages of 6.8 points and 5.0 steals per game are solid, especially for someone who usually comes off the bench, what really stands out is his McConnell’s ability to interrupt a party at any time. During his tenure in the NBA, he has come to be known as one of the best game stealers in the league, especially when defending an entry game in the backcourt. Really, he’s caught a pass or dispossessed an opposing player so many times he’s lost count. In other words, McConnell, who has more than 650 career steals, has it master the art of being a pest.
“I’m proud of this end [of the floor],” he says. “I’ve gotten a fair amount of steals in my career. There aren’t any that really stand out. The ones that mean the most to me are the ones that help get wins.”
Today, McConnell holds an NBA record. Specifically, the most thefts in a single half (new). In that same game, he accomplished the rare feat of amassing a triple-double with double-digit steals to go along with points and assists, the last person to do so was Mookie Blaylock in 1998, tallying 16 points, 13 assists and 10 sockets – far. To put up those numbers, a player has to be in great shape. It also takes courage. McConnell says it’s a specific “mindset.” When he gets tired of chasing players like Chris Paul or Trae Young, instead of quitting, he digs deeper. He tells himself that he is not tired. It takes your endurance to “another level”. That ability to keep going, to push forward is a big reason why he’s been locked up in the NBA for so long, despite not being the prototypical athlete. “Just having that engine where you don’t get tired,” he says.
But that means he also regularly expends energy studying film. McConnell needs to know the personnel he’s dealing with. If he understands his opponents, he’ll know how to read between the lines and pick his spots against them on defense, to know when to steal or deflect. Understanding a given player or team also means knowing when they have failed or fallen asleep in attack. That’s when McConnell takes action. There are so many great players in the league, you can’t chase every minute of the game. So McConnell says, “When a team relaxes that’s when I try to hit.”
For the Pacers guard, that often comes on a layup. He’ll watch the ball go over the net, perhaps off a layup he just made, and into the court to set up his defense. But just after taking an extra half-step, McConnell could dive in front of the other team’s point guard to intercept the inbounds pass. Or maybe he’ll lie in wait and when someone catches the pass and starts to dribble down the court, McConnell will come around him from behind and catch the ball or throw it to a teammate. It’s like hunting. During his eight years in the league, he has learned the calls of other teams and their tendencies. McConnell ties it all together. “I’m playing as hard as I can, trying to disrupt as much as I can,” he says.
Of course, McConnell is not alone when it comes to upsets. Former players who similarly excelled on defense include legendary guards like John Stockton of the Utah Jazz (who is the NBA’s all-time leader in steals) and Muggsy Bogues of the Charlotte Hornets (who is the shortest person to ever play in the NBA to average two or more steals per game in three different seasons). Bogues tells the Guardian that he had to be in “tip of form” to be such a stalwart defensive player. Stamina and endurance were paramount. He also listened and trusted himself when it came to making a big defensive play that could “change the momentum of the game.”
“For me,” says Bogues, “it’s part of my DNA. I just have an inkling of it and I trust my instincts.”
Like Bogues, McConnell knew defense and pressure would be necessary for him to sustain a career in the league. When he entered the NBA as an undrafted free agent, he didn’t see many people picking up opponents all over the court. So, to separate himself from the pack, he took responsibility. He accepted the niche. McConnell has averaged 1.3 steals per game throughout his career. In 2020-2021, this number increased to 1.9. Those are big numbers to back up. And there are a few others around the league who shoulder a similar responsibility, including Jose “Grand Theft” Alvarado of the New Orleans Pelicans. Also defensive player of the year Marcus Smart, second-year reserve Davion Mitchell, guard Jevon Carter, rookie Tari Eason and guard Gary Payton II. “You either have it or you don’t,” McConnell says.
For the Pacers guard, drive is a skill. Yes, you’ve heard that “anyone” can hustle, but not everyone does. At least to the extent that he, Alvarado and the others do. While some can shoot 3-pointers with divine efficiency and others can dunk from the rafters, McConnell has a motor that just won’t stop. He says it was something he established during his first two years in college at Duquesne University, before transferring to the University of Arizona. At Duquesne, the team presses and traps, trying to force turnovers to lead to easy scores. Duquesne isn’t known as a basketball powerhouse, so they had to try to tip the balance any way they could. Trying to “punch it on defense,” McConnell says. He also had success, averaging 2.8 steals per game as a freshman and sophomore, then 1.7 and 2.2 as a junior and senior at Arizona, respectively. Sometimes, too, a robbery isn’t a robbery. It’s an uppercut.
“When you get a grueling road robbery and the crowd groan” McConnell says, “it’s satisfying. But also, when you’re at home and you have a big steal and then you get a bucket on somebody and people go crazy, yeah, it’s satisfying both at home and on the road.”
Part of the reason McConnell puts so much effort into being a threat on defense is because it’s something he can control. In attack, as the saying goes, a player must “take what the defense gives him”. But on defense, you can dictate the effort you put into every second of the game. It’s not about shooting accuracy, it’s not about jumping ability. It’s about perspiration. For McConnell, that’s where he makes his mark, and if it fuels his offensive game, all the better. When he has the ball, he also accepts the pressure. McConnell is really a bit of a glutton for this. “Honestly,” he says, “it’s a breath of fresh air to see that someone else is pushing me. And I’m strangely grateful for that.”
When he passes, McConnell tries to make a quick and safe play to get the defender to set up his team’s offense. But perhaps a small part of him smiles inside, too, knowing the brotherhood of which he and this tenacious defender are both members. When he’s pressing, he knows his job is to make his opponent work. Players like Paul or Young are unlikely to be shut down entirely, but McConnell knows his responsibility is to make them sweat, to make life difficult for them. “Make them miserable,” McConnell says. “If they get comfortable, you’ve got a big problem.”
As a defense, he has never been asked to rest his effort. Neither by a coach nor by an opponent. “I feel like if any player ever said that to me,” McConnell says, “I’d do it twice as much.” But given his style of play, one might wonder what the difference is between aggressive, pesky defense and dirt. Stockton, for example, for all his defensive prowess, was often cited as dirty by fans and even some opposing players. McConnell has no such reputation. So how does that line walk? feeling, instinct At the same time you make sure you never play with bad will. A hard foul can happen in the heat of battle, but foul play is one of those things you know when you see it. Never cross that line. “The players know when you’re just playing hard,” McConnell says.
Today, McConnell is in the midst of a four-year, $33.6 million contract. He has two career triple-doubles (one of only six players to do so coming off the bench) to go along with his NBA record for steals. He even had one winner of the bell game in Philly several years ago. Somehow, he’s still amazed at how well it’s worked. As for those who want to follow in his footsteps? Beware of the many naysayers.
“There’s going to be people every day, and a lot of people, saying you can’t do this, you can’t do that,” McConnell says. “You can’t listen to these people. I’m a big believer in ‘misery loves company’. I think these people are miserable and they’re trying to bring you down.”
This season the Pacers are better than expected. Projected to be a bottom feeder, the franchise is competing for a playoff spot. That’s largely due to the team’s guards, from likely All-Star Tyrese Haliburton to Bennedict Mathurin, candidate for rookie of the year. But it’s also thanks to McConnell, who supports these players and does so with a tenacity that is as infectious as it is effective. He loves being a Pacer, he says. It is an organization with a “bright future”. And it’s also one with a close-knit extended family. In a recent interview with JJ Redick (a close friend of McConnell’s from Philly), former Pacer teammate Caris LeVert praised McConnell, saying he works very hard and is “very deserving” of his spot in the NBA. Yes, you reap what you sow, even if you’re a 6-foot-1 point guard from Western Pennsylvania. For McConnell, pressure is just a way of life.
“I just tried to do my thing,” McConnell says. “By picking up the whole court and getting steals and being a disruptor, I’ve tried to create my own path.”
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