T.J. McConnell shines as an NBA Rookie

March 27, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) reaches for the basketball against Philadelphia 76ers guard T.J. McConnell (12) during the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the 76ers 117-105. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
March 27, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) reaches for the basketball against Philadelphia 76ers guard T.J. McConnell (12) during the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the 76ers 117-105. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

Former Arizona Basketball point guard and now former NBA rookie T.J. McConnell, shined in the NBA for the 2015-16 season.

Media noticed his tenacity and fearless play, but their attention didn’t come automatically or quickly, he had to prove himself over and over again. He wasn’t originally invited to the NBA Combine at first, but somehow he ended up being included much to our delight. As the year had progressed, we could not get enough watching him play.

Wildcats fans held their breath during the 2015 NBA draft hoping to hear his and Brandon Ashley’s names, but it didn’t happen. Then the refreshing news came out that T.J. actually signed on as a partially guaranteed free agent with the Sixers, where he played with the team for Summer League play in Vegas. Ashley was going to play in Summer League for the Lakers, ended up tearing it up in the D-League.

T.J. gave it his all, showing a ton of character, and being a leader on and off the bench. Heck, he was just happy to be there, and he didn’t squander his opportunity to prove himself. He was not only supportive on the bench, but showed the world he was a leader on the court as well. He leaves it all out there when he plays.

Eventually, McConnell made it on to the roster over other players who were actually drafted by the Sixers organization. ‘Against all odds’ seems to be a theme for Arizona Athletes these days.

At season’s end, T.J. found himself topping two major rookie stats rankings. There were post-game interviews where his head coach would speak of McConnell as the shining light on his team or any particular game.

This Arizona Wildcat NBA rookie holds the top spot in recorded steals in the 2015-16 regular season at 95. Second place went to D’Angelo Russell who stole the ball two times less than T.J., but he did it in twice as many playing minutes! The next man down is Nikola Jokic with 79 in 796 playing minutes.

1T.J. McConnell23PHI36795493.470.499.3481.9
2D’Angelo Russell19LAL266931054.410.447.3510.0
3Nikola Jokic20DEN18979796.512.541.3336.7
4Justise Winslow19MIA11768502.422.471.2762.5
5Emmanuel Mudiay19DEN37265872.364.379.319-2.1
6Raul Neto23UTA17462476.431.453.3951.8
7Karl-Anthony Towns20MIN161581503.543.559.3418.3
8Stanley Johnson19DET11855593.375.410.3070.6
9Larry Nance Jr.23LAL4454349.527.541.1002.2
10Kristaps Porzingis20NYK93531028.421.454.3334.3
11Jerian Grant23NYK17750426.394.454.2200.8
12Willie Cauley-Stein22SAC3748463.563.567.0003.8
13Devin Booker19PHO200441048.423.464.3431.9
14Mario Hezonja20ORL10939478.433.504.3490.9
15Frank Kaminsky22CHO9838606.410.455.3373.3
16Josh Richardson22MIA7336341.452.446.4612.5
17Rashad Vaughn19MIL3929217.305.319.293-0.8
18Marcelo Huertas32LAL18226237.422.479.262-0.1
19Nemanja Bjelica27MIN8326308.468.564.3841.9
20Trey Lyles20UTA5926488.438.461.3832.3
21Bobby Portis20CHI5225436.427.443.3081.5
22Myles Turner19IND4125619.498.506.2143.1
23Jonathon Simmons26SAS5824331.504.533.3832.0
24Jahlil Okafor20PHI6522928.508.511.1671.2

Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/19/2016.

McConnell earned the No. 2 ranking in assists with 367, only five behind No. 1 Emmanuel Mudiay, and 101 more than No. 3 D’Angelo Russell.

1Emmanuel Mudiay19DEN68662068372
2T.J. McConnell23PHI81171606367
3D’Angelo Russell19LAL80482259266
4Devin Booker19PHO76512108200
5Nikola Jokic20DEN80551733189
6Marcelo Huertas32LAL530869182
7Jerian Grant23NYK7661265177
8Raul Neto23UTA81531499174
9Karl-Anthony Towns20MIN82822626161
10Stanley Johnson19DET7361687118
11Justise Winslow19MIA7882232117
12Mario Hezonja20ORL7991413109
13Frank Kaminsky22CHO813170898
14Kristaps Porzingis20NYK7272204793
15Nemanja Bjelica27MIN600107583
16Josh Richardson22MIA522110773
17Jahlil Okafor20PHI5348159165
18Trey Lyles20UTA8033138259
19Jonathon Simmons26SAS55281358
20Bobby Portis20CHI624110252
21Larry Nance Jr.23LAL6322126644
22Myles Turner19IND6030136741
23Rashad Vaughn19MIL706100139
24Willie Cauley-Stein22SAC6639141237

Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/19/2016.

What makes this feat so impressive is that Mudiay started in 66 games and dished 372 assists playing 2,068 minutes. In contrast, McConnell started in just 17 games and played only 1,606 minutes. The two players recorded almost the same amount of assists, but if you consider their playing minutes, McConnell ends up with the sweeter and more meaningful stat. He was clearly more efficient.

T.J. never shied from competition, taking on LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, Dirk Nowitzki and many other of the NBA’s top players. Two of his most memorable steals came at the demise of Bryant and James. T.J. had to pinch himself sometimes, was he actually playing in the NBA guarding these NBA Legends? Kobe explained the interaction between them on the court after T.J. forced a jump ball with the legend. T.J. told Kobe, according to Kobe, “I cannot believe I’m lining up to do a jump ball with you this is crazy!”

More wildcats: T.J. McConnell takes on Kobe Bryant

All first and second team honors were announced recently and T.J. McConnell got two first-team and three second-team votes. Going from undrafted to being acknowledged and leading the league in steals, and being near the top in assists as a rookie ain’t too shabby. With those votes, he actually beat out a few first-round picks (Cameron Payne and Jerian Grant). BEARDOWN T.J.! We are still watching and cheering you on! You proved you belong in the NBA!