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NBA AM: When McConnell Changed Schools

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Picking a college is hard. As teenagers making important decisions about things that definitely will impact the rest of the their lives, it can be challenging to know whether a certain university is going to be the right fit, especially for those teenagers that can play a sport well.

For the best of those athletes, the school really doesn’t matter because they’re not going to be at those schools for long. Every year at the McDonald’s All-American Game, there’s a five-star senior that still hasn’t decided whether he’ll commit to Kentucky or Duke, but the decision is ultimately moot because they know they’ll be in the NBA 16 months later, regardless of their decision.

For Philadelphia 76ers point guard T.J. McConnell, that decision did matter, especially when he realized he’d made the wrong one in going to Duquesne.

“Duquesne offered me a scholarship as a sophomore in high school, and I just jumped on it,” McConnell told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t think twice about it and I thought I made a good decision going there for two years and getting my feet wet.”

But sometime during his sophomore year there, McConnell started to feel unchallenged, so when he was approached by a much bigger, more decorated college basketball program toward the end of that season, he came to an understanding that it was time to move on.

“It wasn’t about the fit (at Duquesne),” he said. “I just wanted to play at a higher level and try to challenge myself and better myself. My sophomore year opened my eyes a little bit to try and play at a higher level.”

That’s when the University of Arizona called.

“My release got sent out to teams, and I don’t know how they got word that I was transferring but I’m sure as hell happy that they did,” he said. “It was crazy to see on my phone a Tuscon area code, and when I answered the phone it was [Arizona Head Coach] Sean Miller. I was taken back by it, but it was awesome.”

Unfortunately, a move meant sitting out his entire junior season due to NCAA transfer rules, something that McConnell admits was even tougher than making the decision to change schools.

“I think it’s really hard for any type of competitor to sit out, but if you’re smart and you realize how much that year gets you better like it did for me,” he said. “I got stronger, better, faster, and you get so much experience just by watching. For a guy like me, coming out west and playing in the Pac-12, I had never done anything like it before. To be able to watch firsthand for a year and take everything in, it helped a lot.”

Once he got on the floor at Arizona, he immediately became a fan favorite and clearly one of the better players on his team. He says he wasn’t even thinking about the NBA at that point, but his coach was more optimistic.

“I was so focused on trying to get us to a Final Four and helping out my teammates as much as I could that I didn’t think it was really possible for me to play in the NBA,” he said. “But Coach Miller said something that will always stick with me. He said, ‘With team success, your individual accolades will follow.’ I guess he was right in that case.”

McConnell didn’t get drafted after his final year of eligibility at Arizona was up, but that didn’t stop him from making his way to the NBA. He’s a traditional scrappy point guard, and while he doesn’t shoot three-pointers the way today’s point guards are supposed to, he does have a couple of game-winners on his resume this year and has seen his minutes increase considerably in his sophomore campaign, even starting 23 games thus far.

Even better, the 76ers are a team that’s finally fun to watch, and McConnell has been a big reason why this season.

“It’s good to finally see light at the end of the tunnel and give the fans something to cheer for and be happy about,” he said. “They deserve it. They’ve been put through the ringer a little bit with us, and to see it finally come full circle right now, it feels good.”

It must also feel good to have ended up in a situation where he can start for an NBA team after having been just another point guard at Duquesne in the autumn of 2010. Changing colleges is a tough call for any burgeoning adult, but in this case it certainly seems like McConnell made the right decision.

Had he not transferred to Arizona, that NBA dream may never happened for him.

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About Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.