‘I make it miserable for them’: TJ McConnell and the art of the NBA pest | Indiana Pacers

TJ McConnell, a 6ft 1in backup point guard for the Indiana Pacers, welcomes 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 NBA isn’t a possibility for most guys. It’s been a crazy ride.”

The 30-year-old Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-born hooper, who is playing in the NBA for his eighth season, came into the league undrafted and unheralded. 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 played for 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 McConnell’s ability to disrupt a game at any moment. During his tenure in the NBA, he has come to be known as one of the best in-game thieves in the league, especially when defending an inbounds play in the backcourt. Truly, he’s picked off a pass or stripped the ball from an opposing player so many times, he’s lost count. In other words, McConnell, who has more than 650 career steals, has mastered the art of being a pest.

“I pride myself on that end [of the floor],” he says. “I’ve gotten a good amount of steals in my career. There’s not one that really sticks out. The ones that mean the most to me are the ones that help get wins.”

Today, McConnell owns an NBA record. Specifically, the most steals in a single half (nine). In that same game, he achieved the rare feat of accumulating a triple-double with double-digit steals to go along with points and assists – the last person to do that was Mookie Blaylock in 1998 – tallying 16 points, 13 assists and 10 take-aways. To notch those numbers, a player must be in great shape. It also takes guts. McConnell says it’s all about a specific “mindset.” When he gets tired from chasing players like Chris Paul or Trae Young around, instead of quitting, he digs deeper. He tells himself he’s not fatigued. He takes his endurance to “another level”. That ability to keep going, to push through is a big reason why he’s stuck in the NBA for so long, despite not being the prototypical athlete. “Just having that motor where you don’t get tired,” he says.

But that means he’s regularly expending energy studying film, too. McConnell must know the personnel he’s up against. 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 go for a steal or a deflection. Understanding a given player or team means knowing when they have failed or fallen “asleep” on offense, too. That’s when McConnell takes action. There are so many great players in the league, one can’t hound them every minute of the game. So, McConnell says, “When a team relaxes is when I try to strike.”

For the Pacers guard, that often comes on an inbounds play. He’ll watch the ball go through the net, perhaps after a layup he just made, and head down the court to set up his defense. But just after taking an extra half-step, McConnell might dart back in front of the other team’s point guard to intercept the inbounding pass. Or maybe he’ll lie in wait and when someone catches the pass and begins to dribble up court, McConnell will sneak around him from behind and pluck the ball or poke it out to a teammate. It’s like hunting. During his eight years in the league, he has learned the calls from other teams and their tendencies. McConnell puts all that together. “I’m just playing as hard as I can, trying to disrupt as much as I can,” he says.

Of course, McConnell isn’t alone when it comes to peskiness. Former players who stood out similarly 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 and who averaged two or more steals per game in three different seasons). Bogues tells the Guardian that he had to be in “tip-top shape” to be such a stalwart defensive player. Stamina and endurance were paramount. He also listened to and trusted himself when it came to going for a big defensive play that could “change the momentum of the game.”

“For me,” Bogues says, “it’s a part of my DNA. I just get a feel for it and trust my instincts.”

Like Bogues, McConnell knew defense and pressure would be necessary for him to sustain a career in the league. When he was coming into the NBA as an undrafted free-agent, he didn’t see a lot of people picking up opponents full court. So, to separate himself from the pack, he took on the responsibility. He accepted the niche. McConnell has averaged 1.3 steals a game over his career. In 2020-2021, that number rose to 1.9. Those are big numbers for a backup. And there are a few others in the league who take on similar responsibility, including Jose “Grand Theft” Alvarado of the New Orleans Pelicans. Also the reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, second-year reserve Davion Mitchell, journeyman Jevon Carter, rookie Tari Eason and legacy guard Gary Payton II. “You either have it or you don’t,” McConnell says.

For the Pacers guard, hustling is a skill. Yes, he’s heard that “anyone” can hustle, but not everyone does. At least to the degree he, Alvarado and the others do. While some can shoot three-pointers with divine efficiency and others can dunk from the rafters, McConnell has a motor that won’t quit. 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 would press and trap, 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 scales any way they could. Trying to “muck it up on defense,” McConnell says. He was successful, too, averaging 2.8 steals per game as a freshman and sophomore, and then 1.7 and 2.2 as a junior and senior at Arizona, respectively. Sometimes, too, a steal isn’t a steal. It’s an uppercut.

TJ McConnell keeps an eye on the 76ers’ Tyrese Maxey
TJ McConnell keeps an eye on the 76ers’ Tyrese Maxey. Photograph: Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

“When you get a backbreaking steal on the road and the crowd groans,” McConnell says, “it’s satisfying. But also, when you’re at home and get a big steal and then get someone a bucket and the crowd goes nuts – yeah, it’s satisfying both at home and on the road.”

Part of the reason McConnell pours so much effort into being a menace on defense is because it’s something he can control. On offense, as the saying goes, a player must “take what the defense gives him.” But on defense, you can dictate the effort you put in every second of the game. It’s not about shooting accuracy, 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 welcomes pressure, too. McConnell is actually a bit of a glutton for it. “Honestly,” he says, “it’s a breath of fresh air to see someone else press me. And I weirdly welcome it.”

When it happens, McConnell tries to make a quick, sure move to get by the defender to set up his team’s offense. But perhaps a small part of him is smiling inside, too, knowing the fraternity he and that tenacious defender are both members of. When he’s doing the pressing, he knows his job is to make his opponent work. It’s unlikely players like Paul or Young will ever be shut down totally, but McConnell knows his responsibility is to get them sweating, to make their lives difficult. “Make it miserable for them,” McConnell says. “If they get comfortable, you’re in big trouble.”

As a defender, he has never been asked to give his effort a rest. Not by a coach and not by an opponent. “I feel like if a player ever told me that,” McConnell says, “I’d do it twice as much.” But considering his style of play, one may wonder what the difference is between aggressive, pesky defense and dirtiness. Stockton, for example, for all his prowess as a defender, was often cited as dirty by fans and even some opposing players. McConnell does not have that reputation. So, how does he walk that line? Feel, instinct. While also making sure never to play with ill-will. A hard foul may take place in the heat of battle, but dirty play is one of those things that you know when you see it. No need to ever cross that line. “Players know when you’re just playing hard,” McConnell says.

Today, McConnell is in the middle of a four-year $33.6m contract. He boasts two career triple-doubles (one of only six players ever to do that coming off the bench) to go along with his NBA steals record. He even had a buzzer-beating game-winner in Philly several years ago. In some ways, he’s still shocked by how well it’s worked out. As for those who want to follow in his footsteps? Beware the many naysayers.

“There are 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 those people. I’m a big believer in ‘misery loves company.’ I think those people are miserable and they’re trying to bring you down.”

This season the Pacers are faring better than expected. Predicted to be a bottom-feeder, the franchise are competing for a playoff place. That is largely due to the team’s guards, from likely All-Star Tyrese Haliburton, to Bennedict Mathurin, a candidate for rookie of the year. But it’s also thanks to McConnell, who backs those players up and does so with a tenacity that’s as infectious as it is effective. He loves being a Pacer, he says. It’s an organization with a “bright future.” And it’s one with a tight-knit extended family, as well. 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 extremely hard and is “very deserving” of his place in the NBA. Yes, you reap what you sow – even if you’re a 6ft 1in undrafted point guard from western Pennsylvania. For McConnell, pressure is just a way of life.

“I’ve just tried to do my own thing,” McConnell says. “By picking up full-court and getting inbounds steals and being a disruptor, I’ve tried to create my own path.”

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