T.J. McConnell
Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid (21) and T.J. McConnell (1) walk onto the court after a timeout during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets, Friday, Jan. 13, 2017, in Philadelphia. Philadelphia won 102-93. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum) ORG XMIT: PXC113

This piece will focus on T.J. McConnell, examining not only how good he’s been recently but how he affects his teammates and what his success might mean for the league going forward.

You might ask why we should focus on T.J. McConnell?  After all, he’s considered a borderline starter at best.  Not the kind of player who moves the needle of a team’s destiny.  However, the reason is obvious.  T.J. McConnell is unique, and that uniqueness is not only interesting and worthy of study.

He’s unique not for the obvious reasons, because of his athletic limitations, but rather because of the way he plays the game.  In this, McConnell is a throwback to the kind of Point Guard that was not at all uncommon thirty years ago (John Stockton, Terry Porter, Derek Harper as just a few), pass-first dynamos who pushed offensive efficiency by putting their teammates in advantageous spots to succeed.

Indeed, these players were not at all uncommon.  Roughly thirty years ago, in addition to Stockton, Porter, and Harper, we also had Nate McMillan, Mark Jackson, Maurice Cheeks, John Lucas, Jay Humphries, Mugsy Bogues, Johnny Moore, Scott Skiles, Rickey Green, late career Nate Archibald and very early career Jeff Hornacek.  Depending on the exact year.  Yet, today we just have two such players:  T.J. McConnell and Ricky Rubio.  (Per Basketball-Reference.com)

T.J. McConnell Ricky Rubio

However, McConnell and Ricky Rubio actually play the game somewhat differently, which we can see if we look at the Synergy tracking stats on NBA.com.  (Also, it should be noted that Chris Paul is a version of this type of player that also happens to be awesome at scoring, and thus he doesn’t make the Usage Cut-Offs.)

The Way T.J. McConnell Plays The Game-Part 1

Before we get to the stats, let me start off by saying that I’m going to focus on how T.J. McConnell’s performed from December 30th, the day McConnell assumed the duties of the starting PG, until the end of January.  A month is not the largest of samples, but I’m interested in T.J. McConnell’s success and how it comes about.  These dates make for not entirely arbitrary cut-offs.

Front Court Touches

1) As you can see, T.J. McConnell touches the ball in the Front Court a lot.  Almost 80 times a game.  Only Isaiah Thomas, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and John Wall touch the ball more.

2)  This is one noticeable difference between McConnell and Ricky Rubio.  McConnell, despite not being a scorer, touches the ball as much as many of the games great scorers.  Whereas Rubio touches the ball many less times.  The same thing with Chris Paul.  We’ll see why in a moment, though you can start to get the picture if you look at the Time of Possession numbers on this table.

Passes Made Per Game

1)  Here’s the answer to the question above.  Passes made.  T.J. McConnell passes the ball a lot.  Over 10 times more per game than anyone else, despite playing many less minutes than most of them.


The first of these highlights, from McConnell’s rookie year is one example of why that might be so and also why it can be so effective.  We see McConnell give the ball up to Nerlens Noel, come over the top to get a hand-off/screen, at which point Nerlens turns to re-screen McConnell’s man setting up a lob at the rim off the roll.

The effectiveness of that second screen comes from the give-and-go nature of this play.  Against McConnell, who’s not a threat from deep, there’s no reason for the defender to come over the top om the second screen, except the fact that he’s out of position and has no options to do otherwise.  This puts Mozgov in no-man’s land and gives the Cavs a two-way option.  Either help to cover the rolling Noel, leaving an open three for Covington, or take away the three and leave the lob at the rim.

There’s no good choices for Richard Jefferson.  At this point, you are likely going to surrender a high percentage look, though the lob is both an easier pass and a much higher percentage shot.

2)  This is also not the only type of play in which McConnell makes multiple front court passes.  Anyone who has seen the Sixers has at some point or other seen McConnell dump a pass off, make a cut, come back to the ball, receive it again only to dump another quick pass off, and so forth, until the Sixers find something good.

The ball constantly returns to McConnell.  The ball finds McConnell.  Or is that McConnell constantly returns to the ball?  Finds the ball.  Thus creating many inflections around which the defense may bend.

3) McConnell makes very quick decisions and even though he can maintain his dribble, he rarely holds onto the ball longer than is necessary.  You can see it in McConnell’s average seconds per touch.  Barely over four.  Noticeably much less than any Point Guard besides Curry.  And certainly much less than the Point Guards who touch the ball so often.

What this does is kill the defense by a thousand cuts.  Every pass and cut is a decision point.  A point at which he moves defenders, stretches the defense, alters its shape.  And each stretching provides openings, either for himself, or as is more often the case, for his teammates.

McConnell can’t beat defenses like Russell Westbrook, by taking them head on with raw athleticism.  He can’t defeat them like Curry, with bewildering on-the-ball shooting skill.  But McConnell has shown over the last month or so that can beat them, and the number of passes McConnell makes in a game is key to understanding how.

Front Court Touches Per Minute

1) This is another way to look at the same phenomenon.  In general, players don’t need to touch the ball so often to succeed.  Jimmy Butler, for example, is much more effective than McConnell and touches the ball a lot less.  But I’m going to suggest that a player like McConnell might need to touch the ball this often to be so effective.  Especially since he can’t threaten the defense with his jump shot.

Passes Made : Time of Possession

1)  This statistic is basically nontraditional Front-Court Players and T.J. McConnell.  I’m not sure if it’s counting inbounds passes, or how much an advantage rebounds give the Front Court players, but I think you can get some sense here as to why Draymond Green is not only special, but perhaps very much underrated by individual metrics.  When you have a Front Court player who can pass like Green without turning the ball over, you have a major, major advantage on the defense.  And on other teams who don’t possess such players.

2)  We can also see again that McConnell is somewhat unique for a Point Guard.  For instance, he almost doubles up players like John Wall, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in this statistics.  Guys who really pound the rock.

Judging from the success of these players, this is obviously not a bad thing.  Though not a style of play that would work for a guy like McConnell.  As McConnell lacks the athleticism and shot-making skill to really press the defense in such a manner.

The fact that McConnell realizes he can’t play the same way is one of the keys to realize why he’s so different from other Point Guards with similar skills.  Ish Smith for example, who both shoots the ball and turns the ball over a lot more.  Considering how many decisions McConnell makes throughout a game, turning the ball over 3.6 times per 100 possessions is really low.

Passes Made : Front Court Touch

1)  One thing this metric judges is Usage.  How often a player shoots the ball or turns it over.  By looking at the inverse.  However, especially for Point Guards who don’t inbound the ball, this metric also judges how often these players are able to advance the ball from a Back-Court Position to a Front-Court Position by way of a pass.  Since it’s impossible to have greater than a 1:1 ratio unless the player is making more than a few  outlet passes per game.

The reason it’s impossible is obvious.  All these players take shots and turn the ball over.  So if they only made passes in the Front-Court, their ratios would always be somewhat less than 1:1.

2) The other option is that the player is making lots of passes in the back-court that don’t advance the ball.  Which partially explains Draymond Green.  Since many of his rebounds end up in short passes to a player like Steph Curry or Shaun Livingston.

But it doesn’t really explain the Point Guards, since the NBA rarely uses full-court pressure and all of these guys are more than solid dribblers.

3) McConnell makes a lot of outlets and advancing passes.  It’s another potentially hidden point of value that’s a key to understanding his success.  Here are two advancing passes a couple of weeks ago that led directly two assists.  (Starting at 30 seconds, they come back to back.)

And here are two more from around a month ago.  (One at 0:45 and one at around 1:10.)

4)  Related to such play, we can even see that the Sixers, since T.J. McConnell has been starting, are playing at a significantly faster pace.

Nearly 3 possessions faster per 48 minutes.  Moving from last place in the league up to 4th.  Which is perhaps one of a few reasons the Sixers Effective Field Goal Percentages and Defensive Ratings have improved in that time period.

You have to do no more than look at these highlights in their entirety to understand the many ways that playing fast can lead to easy buckets.  As McConnell occasionally turns rebounds into semi-transition opportunities.  And it’s not just by way of the pass.  Sometimes it’s just by dribbling up the court aggressively to see if he can make something out of nothing.

Potential Assist : Front Court Touch

1)  The first thought when looking at this table is that Chris Paul is a good of shot creation.  The second is that Draymond Green is basically the equivalent of Chris Paul but from a Front Court position.  (I don’t know where Jokic would be.  Probably very high as well.)

2)  Then we come to thoughts about the elite passers in the NBA being at the top of the table and the fact that Jeff Teague is playing out of his mind right now, with very little credit from journalists.  Why?  His last 28 games, Teague has scored 17.3 points per 36, passed for 10 assists per 36, shot 41% from three, 87% from the free throw line and committed only 3.3 turnovers.  (Per 36, of course.)  And the numbers are even better from the field if you just take his last 20 games.  (Nearly 50% from three.)

3)  The fourth thought is that perhaps the 2nd tier of passers on this list, the guys bunched together around 0.224 (Rubio, McConnell, Holiday, Westbrook) are all guys with much lesser teammates than the guys above them.  Maybe there isn’t as much of a gap between them and the players above, at least as passing is concerned.

4)  That’s not to say these are equivalent offensive players.  Scoring is obviously a large part of these players offensive value as well.  But consider how difficult it is to create chances for your teammates if you can’t really threaten the other team as a scorer off the bounce or from distance.   This difficulty is the primary reason why players like McConnell and Rubio are so rare.

Potential Assist : Time of Possession

1) Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins give their teams unique advantages when it comes to passing.  It’s rare to have Front Court players be this good.  (Jokic would almost certainly be here if he had made the Front Court Touches cut-off.)

2)  When it comes to passing and creating chances for teammates, Chris Paul is a Point God.  However regarding this skill, McConnell, at least over the last month or so, seems to be pretty squarely in the 2nd tier of Primary Ball Handlers.  Lebron James, T.J. McConnell and Jrue Holiday.  Not a group of players you’d ever expect to be selected out by any metric.  But here we are.

Lebron James is awesome.  But T.J. McConnell has been really good.  And that’s despite not scoring.  Though to get a better sense of that, we should look at T.J. McConnell’s effect on his team.

T.J. McConnell and Team Effects

Firstly, let’s look at T.J. McConnell’s Offensive On/Off splits on the year.

T.J. McConnell On/Off

1) Here we see that McConnell’s presence on the court exerts a slight positive effect on eFG%, and a huge positive effect on Team Assist Percentage, this despite the other PG being a more than capable passer in Sergio Rodriguez.  (We’ll get a hint as to why in a moment.)  We also see that McConnell depresses the amount of shots that are blocked and turnovers.  Consequently, it should not be surprising that the Sixers carry a +2 ORtg with McConnell on the court.

2)  Please don’t forget, McConnell was coming off the bench up until relatively recently.  These numbers aren’t because all of his minutes are tied to Embiid.  (Even if Embiid didn’t sit out a third of the games for various reasons.  Get well!)

3)  For a low Usage player, team turnovers are a very important indicator.  Though 16.8% is still very high for a team.  The reason why turnovers are important to keep in mind for such players (good passers who don’t take shots) is this:  If the player isn’t shooting the ball often and the team is turning the ball over less when he’s in the game, that means someone else is shooting the ball and very likely those players are getting high value off-the-catch opportunities.

These are the types of opportunities every team should be trying to get as often as possible.  It’s a hidden value of the Low Usage Point Guard who can really pass.  So long as they don’t turn the ball over.  The fact that they shoot less off-the-dribble should, hypothetically at least, lead to a large percentage of the team’s shots being off-the-catch opportunities.  As we saw in the last piece, even for the best players, these shot attempts are much more likely to go in.

T.J. McConnell and Team Catch-and-Shoot Stats

1)  The first thing we see here is that T.J. McConnell’s presence has not improved the number of Catch-and-Shoot Opportunities, nor the number of Catch-and-Shoot Three Point Opportunities.  There are three good reasons for this fact.  One, that McConnell was playing a decent, if sporadic, minutes, even before December 30th .  Two, that the Sixers other PG, Sergio Rodriguez is a similar but slightly less extreme/effective version of McConnell.  (36% Assist Percentage, only 20% Usage.)  Third, that numbers like this are, at least in part, systematic and based on Team Offensive concepts.

2)  What we also see is that the Sixers have had a profound increase in the effectiveness of these attempts.  2% better from Three, which accounts directly for over an extra Point Per Game.  And nearly 3% better in terms of Effective Field Goal Percentage.  These are not small increases.

Though it should be pointed out that there are variances that come in making shots from distance.  15 or 16 games is probably not a large enough sample to cancel out variance completely as an explanation.  Though we saw similar effects last year when comparing McConnell to Ish Smith:

McConnell had significantly more potential assists per 36, more Assist Points Created for 36 and though slightly worse conversion percentages of his Assist Opportunities, probably because McConnell’s passes were more likely to lead to three pointers.  2.49 APC for every Assist for McConnell.  2.38 for Smith.

T.J. McConnell and Traditional Team Stats

1) During the time McConnell has been starting we see increases in Team Field Goal Percentage, Three-Point Percentage, Assists Per Game and Assist to Turnover Ratio, while also seeing slight decreases in overall turnovers.  Please keep in mind that the Turnovers per game number is more impressive than it might seem, since the Sixers are also playing at a significantly faster pace.

2)  This of course also inflates Assists per game.  But remember the Sixers are only playing 3 more possessions per game, while they are dishing out nearly four more assists.  That is to say, pace is only explaining a small part of the increase in passing.  How do we explain the rest?

T.J. McConnell and Advanced Team Statistics

1)  I’m going to suggest it’s because of Chain Reaction Passing.  This effect has perhaps also been referred to as a “Culture of Passing”, a term which would suggest that the positive effects of playing with such a Point Guard extend beyond a single play.  That’s a phenomenon I think very possibly exists.  However,  it would be much harder for me to demonstrate statistically.  So I’ll stick with Chain Reaction Passing.

By that I mean those situations when a player makes a pass so good that it unlocks the whole defense, even though it may take a series of two, three, four or even five passes to get to shot opportunity.

2) There’s a great example in the game Lonzo Ball played vs. Pacific.  (At 1:30.)

Here we see Lonzo Ball press the edge and flips his defenders hips, causing two different defenders to focus on Ball and lose track of their man.  Ball sees this and quickly releases the ball to Alford allowing Alford to take the baseline on the drive.  This drive gets cut-off by a rotating defender, which forces Alford to pass back to Ball.  Seeing a defender closing out onto him, Ball then makes the easy kick to Aaron Holiday for three.

That’s two passes after the initial play made by Ball and a dribbling maneuver.  But it was all set up by that initial read-react awareness of Ball.

I couldn’t easily find a similar play by McConnell, since most highlights only track the individual assists of players, but McConnell makes plays like this not infrequently.  Something we’ll be able to see when we get back to looking at the Synergy Stats below.

3)  As far as these stats, we can see the possibility of Chain Reaction Passing from the recent increase in team Assist Percentage.  From 61% to a near elite 68%.

4)  Also, a six point increase in ORtg is pretty good.  The Sixers are still lagging at around 104, but there’s a reason they are winning games now, even without Embiid.

T.J. McConnell and Defense

1)  Here we have some Team Defensive Statistics and Rankings.  Notice again the Sixers are basically better in every category.  Some might point to McConnell being a better defender than Rodriguez or the Sixers playing Jahlil Okafor less during this time period.  Both true.

However, I do want to point out several other explanations.  Explanations that function at the level of Team rather than at the level of the individual players that go to make up the team.

2)  Firstly, despite playing at a faster pace, the opposition is shooting 1.4 less Field Goal Attempts a Game.  A phenomenon that cannot be explained by the opponent getting more Free Throws.  Since they also get less FTA.  (0.2 less.  From 25.7 FTA per game down 25.5.  Still high.)

3)  So what are the possible explanations.  Steals per game and opposition turnovers explains a lot of the difference.  0.9 steals per game more.  But the Sixers have also been forcing a league best 16.3 turnovers per game during this time, up from 14.

4)  Opposition Offensive Rebounds also explains some of it.  The Sixers are giving 0.4 less per game.  At 10.5 down from 10.9

5)  The real question for me is why?  Is it all McConnell’s presence and Okafor’s absence on defense?  (And of course the presence and improvement of Embiid, though he only played 10 games in this stretch.)  That’s highly possible, especially because the defender replacing Okafor is the often underrated Nerlens Noel.

However, I do think the Sixers offensive success explains a lot of the defensive success as well.  More Assists.  More baskets.  (37.8 per game to 36.7.) More Free Throw Attempts.  (25.1 to 19.3.)  More dead balls.  Less turnovers.  (16.9 to 17.2.)  Less opponents steals.  (8.8 to 7.9.)  More teamwork on offense possibly leading to more teamwork on defense.

Just a thought.  And of course, the hypotheses (Okafor, McConnell, Noel vs. Team play) aren’t mutually exclusive.  These individual players are part of a team and without question affect the way the team plays as a whole.

T.J. McConnell Versus The League’s Best Point Guards

Let us start by looking  at perhaps my favorite Synergy stat, Potential Assists.  It’s my favorite because it’s the closest we can get to looking at how good a player is as a passer without respect to his teammates making or missing shots.

Also, I should state that all of the stats below are again from a split of Games between December 30th and January 31st.

T.J. McConnell by Potential Assists

1)  T.J. McConnell in the top 7, right around Westbrook and James.  That’s good.  Especially when you notice he plays less minutes than all the players above him besides Ball, and that there’s a noticeable gap between this group and the next group of players featuring Ricky Rubio, Jrue Holiday and Mike Conley.

2)  That is to say, these are the league top passers over the last month or month and a half.  Please note, it’s not just McConnell that’s being underrated but also Jeff Teague.  (Zach Lowe, if you’re reading this . . .  Well, never mind.  It’s a thing I like at least.)

T.J. McConnell by Adjusted Assists

1)  Now you can see another reason why T.J. McConnell’s recent play has been so special.  Not only is he in the league leaders of Potential Assists created, but a higher percentage of his Assists are being converted into points than basically all of his brethren.  The trick is that you need to add Free Throw Assists and Secondary Assists into the equation to see this fact.

2) Only John Wall has been better, having 70% of his potential Assists being converted in some manner.  McConnell and Teague are right behind him at around 68%.  What we shouldn’t forget to consider is that John Wall is often passing to guys like Otto Porter, Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat.  Teague is passing to Paul George, Thaddeus Young, C.J. Miles and Myles Turner.

T.J. McConnell has some high percentage Centers in Embiid and Noel.  But the perimeter player’s are a total Gilligan’s island on offense.  Nik Stauskas, Gerald Henderson, Ersan Ilyasova, and a slumping Robert Covington.    (Slumping just on offense.  Overall, because of his defensive presence, Covington this year has been the man.  His importance to potentially winning basketball is much underrated.)

I don’t mean to demean these players.  These are legitimate NBA guys.  Only in my wildest dreams could I have been as good as them.  Beyond that, they’ve all had some success at different points in their career.  When we are talking about the league, they belong.

However, two of them were afterthoughts in trades, and two of them were afterthoughts in Free Agency.  These are not guys with the same pedigree as the guys playing with Wall or Teague.  And yes, that includes Stauskas, even if we would have always expected his shot to improve at some point.

Potential Assists Per 36 Minutes

1)  Yes, Chris Paul is awesome.  It’s hard to understate how awesome Chris Paul is.  May he be healthy for the postseason, and may the Clippers make a meaningful move that might make them a legitimate contender.

2)  After Paul and Harden though, we see our triumvirate of Wall, Teague and McConnell again.  Yes, ahead of Westbrook.  (By a little bit at least.)  And those six players are noticeably ahead of everyone else.

T.J. McConnell has been really good as a passer.  And this before we even get to the statistics that suggest he is better at starting Chain Reaction Passing actions than basically anyone else.

Assist : Potential Assists (Box Score Conversion Percentage)

1)  This metric basically tells us what percentage of a player’s Potential Assists are converted into boxscore production.  We see that despite McConnell’s actual conversion percentage being somewhere near the league leader, that his Boxscore Conversion Percentage is much closer to average.  Conclusion, maybe one reason why he is underrated.

2)  One other thing to consider here is the player’s teammates.  That’s part of the reason why you see Draymond Green and Steph Curry at the top of the list.  They are passing to really good shooters.

3)  Another aspect to consider is if the player’s Assists are more likely to end up in Twos or Threes.  With a player like Ricky Rubio (0.618) an example of a guy whose Assists very often end up in high percentage Two-Point Attempts and Lebron James (0.466.) as example of a guy who mostly sets up guys on the Three-Point line.

11 Assists last night.  How many of them were threes?  Three out of eleven?  How many of them were basically lay-ups.  It seemed like at least half.  This is a difference between the way Rubio plays and McConnell.  Though perhaps it has a lot to do with teammates.

4)  Related to this video and the Sixers.  Just a guess.  If there’s fire accompanying the smoke of rumors shipping Jahlil Okafor to the Bulls, it will somehow involve a pick and Nikola Mirotic.  Mirotic is not only an underrated defender but a good “Buy Low” candidate due to his recent shooting funk.  But he’s much better than a True Talent 30% 3-PT shooter.

Part of the reason may be that he’s almost entirely an off-the-catch player and his service sucks.   That is, you’d expect Mirotic’s shooting to improve in a better environment.  He’s like a more talented Ilyasova and he’s likely to fly under the Restricted Free Agent radar because of his down year.

Assist Points Created : Assists

1)  This is another way of looking at the Two-Point Assist vs. Three-Point Assist Question.  The closer the number is to three, the more likely the player’s Potential Assists end up in Three-Pointers.  The closer it gets to two, the more likely the player’s Potential Assists end up in Two-Pointers.

2)  Now we see the place where McConnell has a major advantage on Jeff Teague and Russell Westbrook.  Very high conversion percentage, but he’s in the pack of very high Three-Point guys that’s only outdistanced by Lebron.  (Yogi Ferrell’s sample size is just too low.)

Jeff Teague and Russell Westbrook are much lower.  Though it’s hardly surprising with Westbrook.  Virtually none of his teammates besides back-up Anthony Morrow is known for his three-point shooting ability.

3)  There are of course some other possible explanations.  And-Ones for one.  I don’t know exactly how And-Ones would be accounted for by these stats, since they are likely to be credited as normal Assists, though I’d guess the points still count.

Chain Reaction Passing 1.  Secondary Assists : Assists

1)  Here we see the ratio of a player’s Potential Assists that end up converted by the way of an “Extra” Pass.  It’s not a one-for-one with Chain Reaction Passing.  Since the player presumably won’t get credit for Chain Reactions that need more than one pass to complete themselves.  But it’s still a good proxy.

2)  Here we see a bunch of players who play with a number of excellent passers at the top, and then T.J. McConnell.

Lillard plays with McCollum and one of the games pre-eminent passing Centers in Mason Plumlee.  Thomas plays for a Brad Stevens team that really works as a unit.  They also have excellent individual ball movers in Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder.  Antetokounmpo and Brogdon being on the list together should give you some sense of the Bucks ability, but they also have Greg Monroe and Matthew Dellavedova, and that’s before Khris Middleton came back.  The Cavs and Warriors should go without saying.

Who do the Sixers have?  Okay, who do the Sixers have besides Dario Saric?

Chain Reaction Passing 2.  Secondary Assists : Potential Assists

1)  Basically the same list.  Slightly different order of players, and with a smaller gap between the best player by this metric, Damian Lillard, and T.J. McConnell.

2)  Now I’m going to show you why these two metrics are slightly misleading.  It has to do with how often these players create Assist chances to begin with.

Of course, players who create more Potential Assists are not only going to be at an inherent disadvantage in a metric like this that has some degree of variance involved.  However, that’s not the most important reason.

The most important reason is that this is a truly a circumstance where more is better, and simple ratios reduce all numbers to a common denominator of 1.  But we don’t just want to understand Chain Reaction Passing as a function of Assists or Potential Assists.  We also want to get some sense of how often these plays might happen.

3)  Of course, we could just look at the leaders by Secondary Assists.  McConnell is first there over this time period.  His 2.3 being better than the 2.1 of Isaiah Thomas, John Wall and James Harden.  However, I don’t think this number truly allows us to understand McConnell’s ability in this direction.

So what’s the solution?  I propose that we multiply our two Chain Reaction Passing Ratios (CRP) by Assist Points Created (APC).  The result won’t have a real value in terms of what actually happens on a basketball court.  However, it will allow us to get a sense of who is good at BOTH starting Chain Reaction sequences and creating lots of scoring opportunities by the pass. (ie.  Who is good at creating LOTS of Chain Reaction sequences.)

Whereas as the ratio only allows us to see the first point.  And all of the other statistics only allow us to see the second.

Chain Reaction Passing X Assist Points Created

T.J. McConnell

1)  I’m only including the results of the second metric, the one using Potential Assists, because the tables are mostly redundant.  Over the last month, McConnell has dwarfed basically everyone else in this statistic, despite often playing next to other players who are not great passers.  It’s not even really close.

2)  If you watch Sixers games, you’ve already seen evidence of this fact as well.  T.J. McConnell deserves a lot of the credit.  Though some of the credit also has to go to Brett Brown.  The fruits of his labor are finally starting to pay off.  We are seeing a team that plays together on both sides of the ball.  Hence, the recent run of positive results.  Which have continued to a certain extent, even when Joel Embiid has been out.

3)  If you buy what I’m selling here (and there’s some reason for doubt), it’ll be pretty evident that this is one area that Advanced Metrics are underrating a player like T.J. McConnell.  Especially because they mostly either use Boxscore Stats or regress against them.  So how do we grade a player like McConnell?

4)  I don’t know if there’s a perfect way, since I believe that our fundamental focus on the individual evaluation of players not only overlooks context but has us thinking about the game the wrong way.  It’s a team sport.  Of course the individual players that make up the teams are important, but the combinations of skills and roles is also important.  Thus, we should probably also be creating metrics that pair groups of players.  No?

Two-player units.  Three-Player units.  Not just line-up data, but metrics that break down the line-up data into scores the way a stat like RPM or BPM does, and from which we can make better and more insightful inferences about the way the game works.

5)  However, given that there’s no perfect way to grade a player like McConnell, I’m going to propose that WP48 might be the best for this particular type of player.  Since there are only a handful of them at a particular time, or less, it’s a narrow pool of players to potentially draw from.  And yet, I’m going to propose that WP48 might not just be useful for this kind of player, but also useful to a degree or trying to determine which basketball players might be best in an ideal state of the game.

The reason being that it’s one realization (that efficiency, valuing possessions and creating possessions are the three most important parts of basketball) is actually true when we’re talking about building the ideal offense.  It only breaks down because the NBA isn’t actually an ideal environment. It’s a real world environment. Context is important, and the fact is simply that there are other skills in basketball, like being able to create shots or play defense, that are important.  (Also, playing against starters and back-ups affects effectiveness.)

However, low Usage PG who don’t turn the ball over are actually much closer to that ideal state this metric assumes.

6)  So how does T.J. McConnell grade in terms of WP48?  .172 this year.  Just outside of the Top 50 overall players in the game.  Which may overrate McConnell to a degree.  After all, McConnell has a serious hole in terms of his scoring ability. (49% True Shooting on 8 shots per 36 minutes.) However, I’d wager it’s much more accurate than OBPM and ORPM, which score McConnell between -2.0 and -2.5 on offense on the season.  And especially so when considering McConnell’s stretch as a starter.

What T.J McConnell’s Success Means In Terms of the 2017 NBA Draft

1) There are perhaps three players in the 2017 Draft class that you could draw direct relationships between:  Lonzo Ball, Monte Morris and De’Aaron Fox.  Okay, so maybe not De’Aaron Fox.  Though the reason why I mention Fox is that there is an ideal version of Fox (one of several) that plays a lot like this year’s version of T.J. McConnell or Ricky Rubio, but is also able to punish opponents at the rim and from the mid-range.  Lower than 20% Usage, playing with patience, eschewing the shots he can’t make with ease, setting up his teammates.

2) About Monte Morris, I’ll just say that Morris might be the more talented shot maker and is far better at not turning the ball over.  However, McConnell is far more tenacious, plays with more energy, and is the much better rebounder and defender.  I’m not sure Morris can duplicate what McConnell has done.  Though he deserves a legitimate chance in the NBA.

3) That leaves us with Lonzo Ball, and as far as Lonzo Ball that leaves us with two thought experiments.  First, do you think Ball can duplicate what McConnell has done in terms of a passer?  They aren’t identical players, but I tend to think so.  Beyond that, Ball has certain advantages in terms of height and athleticism that may make him even better.

The second part of the thought experiment has to do with scoring.  Durind this recent run, T.J. McConnell has scored 8.7 Points per game on 7.9 attempts.  (51.8% True Shooting, 49.2% Effective Field Goal Percentage).  This relative scoring success is despite the fact that McConnell isn’t all that much of a threat off the dribble or from any particular area.  His best is probably at the rim where he’s been getting 3.6 attempts a game and scoring at a 60% clip.

So let’s say, Lonzo Ball can do what T.J. McConnell has done in terms of “At The Rim” scoring.  4-5 Attempts per 36.  60%.  Which is neither conservative nor terribly optimistic.  Let’s also assume that due to height/athleticism and advantages at drawing Free-Throws in college (Lonzo Ball’s FTr is actually good after adjusting for a near 60% 3PAr) on such attempts in college that he gets to the line 3-5 times per 36.

Then of course, there’s the mid-range jumpers to consider.  Does Lonzo Ball shoot them at the NBA level?  For the purpose of this experiment, he does not.  Let’s say 1 attempt a game and that he makes roughly 35% of them.  Also, neither conservative or overly optimistic.

So now we are left with three questions.  Those three questions are, how many three-pointers can Lonzo Ball get off per 36 minutes?  Can he shoot over 40% from that range?  And what would substituting our hypothetical Lonzo Ball for T.J. McConnell do to the Philadelphia offense during this recent stretch?

4) Over the last three seasons, there have been 103 player seasons in which an NBA player has managed to get up at least 6 3PA per 36 minutes.  Considering the best guys  (Curry, Eric Gordon, Troy Daniels, CJ Miles, Harden, Klay Thompson) get up 9-12 attempts per 36, I’d say 6-7 3PA per 36 is fairly conservative.  But we’ll go with that.  And we’ll assume that the shot translates.

That leaves us with a player who shoots 4.5 times at the rim, scoring 5.4 points per 36 there, 1 time from mid-range, scoring 0.7 points there, and 6.5 times from three at 40%, scoring 7.8 points there.  Add in 4 Free-Throws at 75%.  Another 3 points.  Now we have a player like T.J. McConnell on offense, but instead of scoring 9-10 points per 36 minutes, he scores 17.9.

5)  It’s not so simple as just to add 9 points to the Philadelphia’s offense, which if we remember has been scoring roughly 104 points per 100 possessions in this time period when McConnell has been at his best.  After all, our hypothetical Lonzo Ball is shooting more shots than McConnell and thus taking away some shots from other players.  Then there’s also Pace to consider, which might add some tenths of a point back.  Etc . . .

Let’s just make a semi-educated guess and say we add about 7 points a game, you’re now at around 111 points per 100 possessions.  Or a top 8 offense during this time period.  That’s with our offensive Gilligan’s Island.  Not with a supporting cast worthy of winning championship.  With such a supporting cast, it’s likely that this hypothetical player isn’t just helping his team towards a Top 10 offense, but an elite one.

To Sum Up

Of course, this is an overly simplistic thought experiment.  You may think the field goal numbers I’ve come up with are overly optimistic or not optimistic enough.  It of course doesn’t take into full account how more shot attempts might enhance or detract from the numbers of one’s teammates.

Yet looking at T.J. McConnell’s recent success and noting his deficiencies, as great as he’s been, and the deficiencies of his teammates, as great they’ve been, is a decent way to try to gauge the upside potential of Lonzo Ball.  There’s numerous places where Lonzo Ball could improve on what T.J. McConnell has done.  And it’s not difficult to see how those improvements might have a profound effect on whatever offense he plays for, no matter what the individual metrics may end up saying.

Or perhaps I’m full of shit, T.J. McConnell is already more than good enough, and we should just listen to Joel Embiid.

  • All stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com


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