SALT LAKE CITY — Being a student of the game defined how point guard T.J. McConnell approached his rookie year with the Sixers. McConnell never wasted a chance to pick the brains of his coaches and teammates for whatever useful information they could offer.
McConnell beat the odds as an undrafted rookie to make the Sixers roster. He's willing to do whatever necessary to gain an edge over the competition. That's a lesson he learned pretty quickly in his debut season.
“It's a long year and every day you're going to learn something new,” McConnell said. “You got to be like a sponge and absorb all the information you get. Listen to your coaching staff. Even the players – the veterans, they got a lot to say. You got to be all ears for it.”
McConnell has brought the same attitude with him in his return stint with the Sixers' summer league team. He got his first chance to show what he learned last season in the team's opening practice at the University of Utah on Saturday.
Going into his second season, McConnell is trying to look at the complete picture in evolving his game. He is doing everything from working on his shot mechanics to upgrading his nutrition.
One of his biggest points of emphasis is becoming a better floor leader. McConnell wants to be a true coach on the floor. He wants to be able to run a team smoothly and flawlessly to make life easier on the coaching staff whenever he is in the game.
“Coach [Brett] Brown shouldn't have to talk every game and Coach [Billy] Lange and Coach [Lloyd] Pierce shouldn't have to be coaching every play,” McConnell said. “That's what the point guards are for.”
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The former Arizona standout demonstrated some promise when he got his turn to show what he could do at times last season.
McConnell made 17 starts in 81 games and averaged 6.1 points and 4.5 assists in 19.8 minutes per game for the season. As a shooter, McConnell averaged 47 percent from the field and 34.8 percent from the perimeter.
The Sixers' coaching staff anticipates seeing him take a leap forward in year two. McConnell has an intense hunger to improve as a player and get on the court and it shows even in a summer league practice going up against a plethora of rookies.
"That's who he is,” Sixers summer league coach Lange said. “He's never satisfied. You take him out of a summer league scrimmage and put a new player in, he's like, 'No. I want to stay in that game.' That's just who he is and how he ticks."
McConnell will likely face plenty of competition for playing time in the backcourt again this season.
Ish Smith, last year's main starting point guard, left after agreeing to a 3-year $18 million deal with the Pistons. The Sixers also did not extend a qualifying offer to Isaiah Canaan after he averaged just 1.8 assists in 25.5 minutes per game a year ago. Kendall Marshall returns, however, and the Sixers recently agreed to a 3-year, $27 million deal with veteran point guard Jerryd Bayless.
McConnell isn't worried about where he will fit into the regular season picture right now. His current focus is the same as it was a year ago – keep beating the odds.
“I'm just trying to do the same thing I did last year,” McConnell said. “Just trying to be like a sponge and take all the information I get because I need it. I'm just trying to get better every day.”