South/West Xtra: Char Valley's McConnell works at his craft

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Just as he has done ever since he can remember, T.J. McConnell is using his summer break to play as much basketball as possible, commuting from his parents' Collier home to play in pickup games throughout the area.

Oh, yeah ... he's spent some time playing with a few NBA standouts and some of the top college point guards in the country, too.

McConnell, a 2010 Chartiers Valley High School graduate, continues to work hard on his game after bursting onto the national scene last season as the starting point guard at the University of Arizona. The Wildcats were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and advanced to the Elite Eight.

Last week, McConnell participated in the invitation-only Nike Point Guard Skills Academy at Kean University in New Jersey. The three-day instructional camp included 13 college and 19 high school point guards.

Former NBA coach John Lucas was one of the lead instructors, as were three of the NBA's top young point guards -- All-Star Kyrie Irving, Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams and All-Rookie Team honoree Trey Burke.

"Honestly, it was one of the best camps I've been to," said McConnell, who will be a redshirt senior at Arizona. "It was an honor to be invited. There are like 350 teams in the NCAA, and only [13] guards get invited.

"I was thankful. It was an honor to play with those guys."

Pitt's James Robinson was McConnell's roommate. The other college players were West Virginia's Juwan Staten, Wichita State's Fred VanFleet, Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos, Stanford's Chasson Randle, Louisville's Terry Rozier, Oregon's Joseph Young, Texas' Isaiah Taylor, UAB's Chad Frazier, Utah's Delon Wright, Kansas State's Marcus Foster and Seton Hall's Isaiah Whitehead.

McConnell said many of the drills focused on shooting, from floaters to pull-ups to 3-pointers. Some of the drills, McConnell said, involved facets of the game that fell out of his "comfort zone," so he was able to add some new wrinkles to his skill set.

McConnell scrimmaged with the NBA players and earned high praise from Lucas, who tweeted during the camp, "TJ McConnell is showing why he's a leader and winner."

"That camp showed me I need to work on every aspect," McConnell said. "Being at that camp, playing against those athletes, it showed me never to settle."

Four summers ago before his freshman season at Duquesne, McConnell shined at the Pittsburgh Basketball Club Pro-Am League. He was hoping to play in the league again this summer -- it began last week at Montour High School -- but might be forced to sit out after tweaking his ankle last weekend. McConnell said he will head back to Arizona the middle of this month.

When practice begins late this fall, McConnell will try to lead Arizona to a national championship. Two of last year's stars -- Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson -- were selected in last week's NBA Draft, but McConnell will be surrounded by another talented group that includes Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley and highly regarded freshman Stanley Johnson.

Outside of winning a national title, McConnell's first season eligible at Arizona -- he had to sit out a season after transferring from Duquesne following his sophomore year -- could not have gone much better. In addition to the team success, McConnell was dynamic at the point for the Wildcats, becoming a difference maker with his passing, defense, and leadership.

His 202 assists were the sixth-most in school history. McConnell was named second-team All-Pac 12 and made the Pac 12 All-Defensive team.

"It was one of the best seasons I've ever had as a player," McConnell said. "It was kind of a disappointment we didn't win a national championship, but making it to the Elite Eight was an honor. Growing up, playing in the NCAA tournament was always a dream to me."

Another is playing in the NBA. McConnell said he sometimes thinks about possibly realizing that dream after what he hopes will be a special, final college season.

"Obviously, it's any kid's dream to play in the NBA," he said. "I'm just working my hardest to win a national championship at Arizona. If I can play in the NBA one day, that would be a huge honor."

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