Inside the Philadelphia locker room, once a graveyard of 10-day contracts, no one has appeared in more games in a 76ers uniform than McConnell. All-star Joel Embiid has the trademark nickname, but no Sixers player embodies The Process — the franchise’s lengthy roster-rebuilding strategy — quite like McConnell.
As the 76ers prepare for what could be the most important game in the realization of the Process — their chance to take a 3-1 lead over the visiting Raptors on Sunday — its lone survivor reflected on the journey.
“Although we lost a lot of games, it was valuable experience for me, and [I’m] kind of just grateful the Process is here,” McConnell said. “I’m not sure where I’d be if there wasn’t a process, you know?”
The Process demanded four years of tanking to garner high draft picks. The rebuilding model, which sprang from the mind of then-general manager Sam Hinkie, only worked because of the transactions constantly coming down the conveyor belt.
In 2013, The Process commenced: Dewayne Dedmon, Jarvis Varnado, Darius Johnson-Odom, James Nunnally, Casper Ware, Adonis Thomas, Larry Drew II, Tim Frazier, Justin Harper, Shawn Long and Alex Poythress.
And those were just the guys signed to 10-day contracts.
Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Hollis Thompson, Lorenzo Brown, Arnett Moultrie, Drew Gordon and Malcolm Lee.
Wait, there’s more.
Ronald Roberts, Jorge Gutierrez, Thomas Robinson, Jerryd Bayless, Richaun Holmes, Chasson Randle, Phil Pressey, Kendall Marshall, Christian Wood, Carl Landry, Sonny Weems and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot.
Most of those players were sacrificial lambs in shorts, signed to endure seasons of 19, 18 and 10 wins so Philadelphia could earn the rights to draft potentially franchise-altering stars such as Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. Yet somehow McConnell, the undrafted point guard who arrived Sept. 22, 2015, has outlasted even Fultz, the No. 1 pick in 2017 who was traded to Orlando in February.
“I was young … a rookie. My head was spinning. Just trying to find my way. Although we lost a lot of games, it was valuable experience for me,” McConnell said of the 2015-16 season, when the 76ers compiled the third-worst record (10-72) in NBA history.
“People say that —” he went on before chuckling as he continued, “that we were trying to lose. We just didn’t have good enough players, and I think the Process, to define it, it built a culture to where we’re at now.”
He credits Coach Brett Brown and his staff with putting it all into place. “You’ve got to give Brett a ton of credit with that and his coaching staff,” McConnell said. “Building a culture is hard, and they did a tremendous job with that.”
McConnell has appeared in 314 regular season games, and each year he has been a rotational player. This postseason, however, playing time has been scarce. McConnell can mostly be spotted in GIF form on social media, raising the roof after a Simmons dunk or chest-bumping Mike Scott. Although Brown has praised Jimmy Butler as the “adult in the room,” McConnell has starred as the pro on the bench.
“If anybody really pays attention to our bench … it would greatly explain why he has been here,” Brown said. “He’s just an amazing teammate. He’s got a work ethic; he’s got a spirit. I think T.J. McConnell is going to be in the NBA for 15 years. Every time he gets this opportunity and confirms why he is in the NBA.”
Embiid arrived in Philadelphia in 2014, a year before McConnell, but didn’t play because of injuries during the bulk of those forgettable seasons. After Thursday’s 116-95 win, he wasn’t in a sentimental mood.
“This is not a good time to talk about the Process,” Embiid said while wearing a hoodie with those two words printed on the front. “It was great, you know. … But we’ve got a lot more to give. We have a chance to accomplish something special, and that’s what we’re focused on.”
The last man standing has seen the 76ers mature from lovable losers — or simply laughingstocks — to contenders. Now McConnell understands there’s more to process.
“Unfortunately, when you win 10 games, there’s not a lot of expectations going into work every day. But we still showed up and played extremely hard,” he said. “The expectation now is if we don’t get to the Eastern Conference finals, it’s a failure. … The expectation part has grown from rock bottom to the sky’s the limit.”