David Borne | Staff Writer
For years, the Pittsburgh area has been known for the vast amount of top football prospects it produces. The city has put out a ton of wrestling talent, as well. However, one sport’s protégés that are often overlooked in Pittsburgh are basketball recruits.
A number of talented hoopers have come out of the city, but there is just one Pittsburgh native on an NBA roster this season: former WPIAL star at Chartiers Valley High School and current Philadelphia 76ers point guard T.J. McConnell.
The road to the top hasn’t always been an easy one for McConnell. He was overlooked by top college programs coming out of high school, and his impressive collegiate career wasn’t enough to get his name called during 2015 NBA Draft. He has had to earn every opportunity that he’s been afforded, and thanks in large part to all of his hard work and passion for the game, he has put Pittsburgh on the basketball map.
“Growing up in the city, there’s been great players that came there and you just want to be one of those great players,” McConnell said. “If the city taught me anything, it’s to just play hard all the time and that’s what I try to do.
“It’s tough but also gratifying at the same time. Knowing how much work you put in and how much you’re in the gym to work for everything you get. It’s a [gratifying] feeling,” he added.
The Pittsburgh kid chose to stay local for his first two collegiate seasons, starring here at Duquesne. He shone during his first two seasons as a Duke, and that’s when Power 5 programs took notice. Following his sophomore season in 2011-12, when the guard finished with the fourth-most steals per game in the country (2.8) for the Dukes, McConnell transferred to the University of Arizona in pursuit of a national championship.
Despite what many believe about his brief stint at Duquesne, the former A-10 Rookie of the Year had nothing besides a positive experience at the university, and credits much of his current success to what he learned during his days on the Bluff.
“Duquesne was a great experience for me. Everyone thinks that because I transferred I hated it, but those were two great years for me. It got me my start to where I am now. I’m forever grateful for Duquesne and everything that they’ve done for me,” McConnell told The Duke.
The impact of McConnell’s success in Philadelphia is felt everyday on the Pittsburgh basketball scene. He has proven that the area is capable of putting out top basketball talents and isn’t to be disregarded.
Western Pennsylvania’s current top basketball prospect, Robby Carmody, looks up to McConnell and views him as an inspiration. Carmody, a senior at Mars Area High School, is a Notre Dame commit and ranks 80th on ESPN’s 2018 Top 100 List.
“I haven’t really seen anybody from the WPIAL make it as far as he has, especially the way he’s done it,” Carmody said. “He’s always been a bit of an underdog and he’s kind of just fought through it all and has been able to cement himself as a premier tough guy in the NBA.”
What stands out to Carmody, and what he admires most about McConnell, is his toughness and ability to battle through any situation.
“Obviously this is a really big place for football and wrestling and it’s something that everybody around here plays with. It’s a really tough brand of basketball that you don’t really see in many other places,” Carmody said.
Carmody said that the toughness and tenacity that he’s been able to develop is in large part thanks to his upbringing in the Pittsburgh area.
“It’s helped me out a lot on the AAU circuit and it’s something that’s going to keep T.J. in the league for a very long time,” Carmody said.
When the 76ers signed McConnell as a free agent in 2015, nobody knew how long he would stick around with the team. The Sixers had a revolving door at the point guard position at the time, leading even McConnell to wonder if he had a future with the team.
Two years later, McConnell has solidified a spot in the 76ers rotation, and has won over the Philadelphia fanbase along the way.
“To be honest, I didn’t even expect to be on the team,” McConnell said. “I didn’t know that all this would happen and I would make it this far, but hard work pays off. I’m a big believer in opportunity. There’s a lot of opportunity in this world and it’s about taking advantage of it.”
McConnell faces a new challenge this season. The addition of playmaking point forward Ben Simmons has pushed him to play more of an off-ball role, but as always, McConnell has found a way to adapt his game, enabling him to still be able to make an impact.
“It’s different but it’s great for me to be able to do something that’s not in my comfort zone. I’ve worked really hard on my [three-point shot]. It’s just about confidence and shooting it with confidence and getting reps with it,” McConnell said.
Even though he now spends most of his time in Philadelphia, McConnell is still defined by his Pittsburgh roots. The values of grit and toughness that come with calling Pittsburgh home have helped in paving his way to success.
Carmody hopes to be able to say the same years from now.