Overtime: T.J. McConnell, Pacers’ bench behind success

Photo courtesy of sportslogos.net via Wikimedia Commons. 

DONALD CROCKER | STAFF REPORTER | dcrocker@butler.edu 

After missing nearly a year due to a ruptured quad tendon in his right knee, All-Star guard Victor Oladipo is set to return on Jan. 29 at home against the Chicago Bulls. 

Heading into the season, outlets like the Bleacher Report and ESPN predicted the Pacers would get less than 47 wins as they attempt to stay afloat as Oladipo recovers. 

They are on pace to win at least 53 games. 

That should land them at least a top four or five seed in the playoffs. The Pacers have won seven of their last nine games, giving them an impressive 30-17 record as the All-Star break approaches. Keep in mind, guard Malcom Brogdon missed 13 games and center Myles Turner missed nine games. 

Already, Brogdon leads the team in assists per game with 7.3, which is ranked ninth in the league. Turner is averaging 12.6 points and six boards per contest. 

The Pacers were supposed to be closer to a .500 record, but instead, they’re now just two games out of the second seed in the Eastern Conference with 13 more wins than losses.

What gives the Pacers a top five record in the East and a top 10 record in the league?

Brogdon’s ability to step up as a leader to close out games and forward Domantas Sabonis’ All-Star campaign are things that shouldn’t be overlooked. 

But I believe it’s the energy from the bench causing the Pacers’ successful yet unexpected start to the season.

Former 76ers guard T.J. McConnell gives the team the type of energy every team should want coming from their second unit. 

McConnell won’t fill up the stat sheet. He only averages 6.9 points and 5.5 assists per game. It’s the little things that just don’t show up in the box score. 

Whether it’s a hustle play, a steal or dancing around the paint to get enough room to shoot a floater, McConnell is one of the most entertaining bench players to watch. 

 

 

McConnell is the glue that makes the bench unit play so well. He uses his swift feet to penetrate opposing defenses and create easy baskets for his teammates. 

 

 

Without McConnell, I’m not confident the Pacers would even be in the playoff race right now. His effort and reluctance to give up provides the energy to other players to spark a run, either to get back in the game or to expand their lead. 

After a game against the Grizzlies on Nov. 25, 2019, McConnell’s teammates gave him the nickname “Sunshine.”

Fans of sports movies, or actor Denzel Washington, will recognize Sunshine, who was portrayed by actor Kip Pardue, as one of the quarterbacks in the critically acclaimed film “Remember the Titans.”

If you live under a rock and haven’t seen it, go watch it and come back to finish this article when you’re done.

In the movie, Sunshine — real name Ronnie Bass — comes in for the injured quarterback and wills the team to a victory. Throughout the movie, Bass gave the team exactly what they needed to look past their differences and ultimately win the championship at the end of the movie.  

McConnell isn’t from sunny California like Sunshine, but the two definitely have some similarities. Head coach Nate McMillan spoke to the IndyStar about why the nickname fit him. 

“You want to play with him,” McMillan said to the IndyStar. “You want to be with him out there, whether it’s in practice or pick-up games because of the way he plays.”

McConnell, like Sunshine, can provide leadership and energy to help their team win a game. And who doesn’t want that on your team?

The Pacers acquired McConnell, along with Brogdon and shooting guard Jeremy Lamb, to replace veteran guards Darren Collison, Cory Joseph, Tyreke Evans and Wesley Matthews — all four of whom the Pacers did not re-sign after the 2018-19 season. Except it put them in a tough spot heading into the offseason, especially considering Oladipo’s injury.

The Pacers needed somebody to play shooting guard off the bench.

Introducing guard Aaron Holiday. Last year, Holiday rarely saw the floor as a rookie with veteran guards Collison, Joseph, Evans and Matthews.

McMillan opted to move Holiday to the two spot to come off the bench with McConnell running the offense. Holiday has started 18 times in place of either Brogdon or Lamb. He’s shown he has a ton of potential and could be a quality guard for years to come. 

With those good moments, though, he’s had some bad ones. But so do a lot of 23-year-old guards; the future is bright for the younger Holiday brother.

The older Holiday brother, Justin, has been huge for the Pacers. Justin, who is listed at 6 feet, 6 inches, has played both shooting guard and small forward throughout his career. With the adaption of small ball and the lack of another big man off the bench, Justin slid down to power forward. Even though that’s not Justin’s traditional position, he hasn’t missed a step. Justin can knock down the three and essentially guard every position besides center. 

Then you have Creighton graduate Doug McDermott who provides shooting from behind the arc. McDermott has been inconsistent throughout his career, no thanks to him being on five teams over the last three years. It seems as though he’s finally found a home in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. McDermott is averaging 14.9 points over the last eight games while shooting an efficient 51% from deep. 

All this being said, McMillan will have a dilemma to deal with heading into their game on Jan. 29 against the Bulls. He’ll have to decide who Oladipo will replace off the bench. Lamb will come off the bench and assume the backup shooting guard role.

I would be shocked to see McConnell bumped out of the rotation considering how well he has been performing. 

Instead, Aaron will unfortunately get the bump, simply because McDermott has been hot lately and Justin’s defense has been huge for them. Lamb adds more size at 6 feet, 5 inches compared to Aaron’s 6 feet. But because Aaron’s played so well this season, I wouldn’t be surprised if McMillan found eight to 10 minutes for him to play.

It’ll be interesting to see how Oladipo will fit in with the team. A backcourt of Brogdon and Oladipo will be hard to compete against on either side of the court.  

Compared to last season, the Pacers are ideally the same at its core, but there are a lot of new pieces for Oladipo to get used to playing with. 

If the Pacers intergrate Oladipo into the already successful team they are, they will be a problem for the rest of the Eastern Conference when the playoffs roll around in the spring.

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