TJ McConnell, a 6-foot-1-inch backup point guard for the Indiana Pacers, welcomes the press.
“Where I am from,” McConnell told The Guardian before his team’s late-December game (and eventual win) against the Boston Celtics, “The NBA is not a prospect for most guys. It’s been a crazy ride.”
The 30-year-old Hooper of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who is in his eighth season in the NBA, entered the league undrafted and undisclosed. McConnell joined the Philadelphia 76ers prior to the 2015 season after starring in the 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 sits on the bench, what really stands out is McConnell’s ability to disrupt a game in any given situation. Moment. During his tenure in the NBA, he became known as one of the best game stealers in the league, especially when defending an inside game in the backcourt. Really, he’s caught 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 this end [of the floor],” he says. “I’ve had a great deal of steals in my career. No one really stands out. The things that mean the most to me are the ones that help make the gains.”
Today, McConnell holds an NBA record. Specifically, he steals the most in one half (nine). In the same game, he achieved the rare feat of compiling 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 steals. To score these numbers, the player must be in good shape. It also takes courage. It’s all about a certain “mindset,” McConnell says. 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. He takes his stamina to “another level”. This ability to keep going, to get ahead is a big reason he stayed in the NBA for so long, despite not being your typical athlete. “Just having that drive where you don’t get tired,” he says.
But this means that he regularly spends his energy studying films as well. McConnell should know the individuals he is facing. If he understands his opponents, he will know how to read between the lines and pick his points against them on defense, to know when to go for a steal or deflection. Understanding a specific player or team means knowing when they fail or sleep on offense, too. This is when McConnell takes action. There are a lot of great players in the league, and no one can chase them every minute of the game. So, says McConnell, “When the team relaxes, that’s when I try to strike.”
For the Pacers guard, that often comes down to inside play. He’ll watch the ball go over the net, perhaps after a corner kick he’s just taken, and run onto the pitch to line up his defence. But after he takes an extra half-step, McConnell may dash backwards past the other team’s guard to intercept the inside pass. Or maybe he lies in wait and when someone catches a pass and starts dribbling down the field, McConnell will sneak around from behind and catch or pass the ball to a teammate. It’s like hunting. During his eight years in the league, he learned the calls and tendencies of other teams. McConnell puts it all together. “I play as hard as I can, and try to disrupt as much as I can,” he says.
Of course, McConnell is not alone when it comes to pessimism. Former players who have distinguished themselves similarly on defense include legendary guards such as John Stockton of the Utah Jazz (who is the NBA’s all-time leader in steals) and Magsey Bogges of the Charlotte Hornets (who is the shortest person ever to play in the NBA to steal an average of two or more times per game in three different seasons). He has to be in “top” shape to be a strong defensive player, Boggis tells the Guardian. Stamina and endurance were paramount. He also listened and believed in himself when it came to making a big defensive game that could “change the momentum of the game”.
“For me, it’s part of my DNA,” Bogos says. “I just feel it and trust my instincts.”
Like the Bogues, McConnell knew defense and pressing would be essential for him to sustain a major league career. When he was coming into the NBA as an undrafted free agent, he didn’t see many people picking on their opponents on the field. Therefore, to separate himself from the herd, he took responsibility. He accepted status. McConnell averaged 1.3 steals a game over his career. In 2020-2021, that number increased to 1.9. These are great numbers to back up. And there are few other players in the league with similar responsibility, including Jose “Grand Theft” Alvarado of the New Orleans Pelicans. He is also Defensive Player of the Year, Marcus Smart, second year backup Davion Mitchell, trip driver Jevon Carter, freshman Terry Eason and longtime guard Gary Payton second. “You either have it or you don’t,” says McConnell.
For a Pacers guard, hustle is a skill. Yes, he’s heard that “anyone” can rant, but not everyone does. At least to the degree that he, Alvarado, and the others do. While some can shoot three-pointers with divine efficiency and others can dunk to the rafters, McConnell has an engine that just won’t stop. He says it’s something he established during his first two years of college at Duquesne University, before transferring to the University of Arizona. At Duquesne, the team was pressing and cornering, trying to force turnovers to lead to easy results. Duquesne isn’t known as a basketball powerhouse, so they had to try to tip the scales any way they could. McConnell says he’s trying to “corrupt the defense.” He was also successful, 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 theft is not theft. It’s a capital letter.
“When you get a painful rustling on the road and the crowd groansSays McConnell, “It’s satisfying. But also, when you’re home and you get a big heist, and then you get somebody’s bucket and the crowd goes 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 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, and it’s not about jumping ability. It’s about sweating. For McConnell, this is where he makes his mark, and if that fuels his offensive game, even better. When he has the ball, he welcomes pressure, too. McConnell is actually kind of a glutton for it. “Honestly,” he says, “it makes me so happy to see someone else squeeze me in. And I welcome it in a weird way.”
When that happens, McConnell tries to make a quick and reliable move to get the defender to set up his team’s offense. But maybe a little part of him is smiling on the inside, too, knowing the brotherhood he belongs to and this stubborn defender. When he does pressure, he knows it’s his job to make his opponent work. Players like Paul or Young are not likely to be completely shut down, but McConnell knows it’s his responsibility to make them sweat, to make their lives difficult. “Make it miserable for them,” says McConnell. “If they get too comfortable, you’re in big trouble.”
As an advocate, he was never asked to relax his efforts. Not by a coach, not by an opponent. “I feel like if a guy told me that, I’d do it twice,” McConnell says. But looking at his style of play, one might wonder what the difference is between an aggressive, troublesome and sloppy defense. Stockton, for example, for all his prowess as a defender, was often cited by fans and even some opposing players. McConnell does not have that reputation. So how does he walk this line? feel, instinct. While also being careful not to play in bad faith. It might go terribly wrong in the heat of battle, but playing sloppy is one of those things you know when you see it. You never need to cross that line. “Players know you play hard,” says McConnell.
Today, McConnell is in the middle of a four-year, $33.6 million contract. He boasts of owning two triple-double triples (one of only six players to ever do so Get off the bench) to go along with his NBA steal record. He even had a winner in a Philly game several years ago. In some ways, he’s still shocked at how well it worked. As for who wants to follow in his footsteps? Beware of the many naysayers.
“There will be people every day — and many people — who say you can’t do that, you can’t do that,” says McConnell. “You can’t listen to these people. I’m a big believer in ‘misery loves company.’ I think these people are miserable and trying to bring you down.”
The Pacers are going better than expected this season. Projected as a bottom feeder, the franchise is competing for a playoff spot. This is due in large part to the team’s guards, from All-Star Tyrese Haliburton to Benedict Mathurin, rookie of the year nominee. But thanks to McConnell, who supports these players and does so with tenacity as infectious as it is effective. He says he likes to be easygoing. It is an organization with a “bright future”. She is one with a tight knit extended family as well. In a recent interview with JJ Reddick (a close friend of McConnell’s from Philly), former Pacer teammate Carris Levert praised McConnell, saying that he works extremely hard and that he “very deserves” his place in the NBA. Yes, you reap what you sow—even if you’re an uncut 6-foot-1-inch ranger from Western Pennsylvania. For McConnell, pressure is just a way of life.
“I just tried to do my own thing,” says McConnell. “By taking on a full court, getting inside steals, and being a nuisance, I tried to create my own path.”