WPIAL basketball: Another dimension
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Same old T.J. McConnell. Still extremely afraid of any snake. Still loves to watch wrestling on TV. Still likes a homemade chocolate milk shake. Still takes all the cheese off his pizza before he eats it.
But in another facet of McConnell's life, he has changed drastically. Put him on the basketball court, and he isn't the same player he was a year ago. Not even close.
For the next Transformers movie sequel, McConnell should get a part because this 6-foot, 165-pound senior guard has transformed himself into a player and scorer that hasn't been seen in the WPIAL or City League in a long time. Before, he was good. Now he's on another completely different level.
Through the first third of this season, McConnell has been the buzz of district basketball. He's worth three dozen a game. Points, that is.
That is McConnell's average through the first nine games. To put that in perspective, consider that in the past 25 years, only 11 players in the WPIAL and City League have averaged 30 points or more in the regular season. The only one to average more than 32 was Laurel Highlands' Rob Kezmarsky, who averaged 36.2 in the 1989-90 season.
With the talent McConnell has displayed so far, with the up-tempo style Chartiers Valley plays and with Chartiers Valley's section being a little weak, there is no reason to believe McConnell can't end the season averaging more points than anyone in the WPIAL or City League in the past quarter century.
McConnell is bigger, stronger, quicker and jumps much higher than he ever did. Example? He could barely touch the rim a year ago. Now he sometimes throws down dunks on a fastbreak. Now he elevates on his jump shot.
"I don't know what he did, but that is not the same player I saw play in February of last year," said South Park coach Will Saunders.
Saunders' team got "Mc-grilled" Tuesday night. McConnell had 38 points, 6 rebounds, 7 steals and 3 assists against South Park.
"I don't know what he did since the end of last season but I have never seen a kid change so much and become so much more athletic in a year. It really is unbelievable," Saunders said. "Before, he used to be a Division I college shooter. Now, he's a Division I college athlete -- and player."
Although the scoring is impressive, it's even more impressive when you consider McConnell is averaging only 21 shots per game. He is shooting 65 percent (126 of 195) from the field and 54 percent (24 of 47) from 3-point range.
McConnell has 265 career 3-pointers and needs only 38 more to break the WPIAL career record of 302, set by 1998 Chartiers Valley graduate Mike Colbert.
Shooting 3-pointers used to be what McConnell did mostly. Not anymore. He averages 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 6 steals per game exclusively playing point guard for the first time in his life.
Last week, McConnell scored 106 points in three games and broke the scoring record at the 19-year-old Surf 'N Slam Tournament in San Diego. Some big-time college players and NBA players have been in the tournament over the years.
"When I saw him play AAU basketball this summer for a team in Ohio against some elite players, he held his own," said Tim McConnell, T.J.'s father and Chartiers Valley's coach. "I knew then he was going to be tough for people to guard him one-on-one in the WPIAL. But then we went to San Diego and played some really good competition and he was still scoring. I couldn't believe it.
"I have to be honest. I never, ever thought he'd be dunking the ball and never in my wildest dreams did I think he would ever score like this. I don't want it to sound like I'm talking about him just because he's my son, but he's just so much more athletic now. He can jump and elevate over people now."
It's not like T.J. (short for Timothy John)McConnell was just another player in the past. He always had talent, even in elementary school. He was a Chartiers Valley starter since his freshman year. Last year, he made the Post-Gazette Fabulous Five after averaging 22 points, 5 assists, 5 steals and 3 assists.
But he was nothing like he is this year. He was 5 feet 5, 115 pounds three years ago as a freshman. People would cheer for him because he was the "cute little kid."
"I don't know where the dunking came from. It just sort of happened," McConnell said with a laugh. "But my teammates and myself worked hard all summer and it paid off. We were in the weight room a lot. I worked on my legs."
McConnell added 15 pounds since last season -- and several inches to his vertical leap. He always has had a good work ethic. Two summers ago, he shot 500 3-pointers per day.
"I thought I was too one-dimensional last year," McConnell said. "I could just shoot. I worked a lot on my ballhandling and passing ability."
McConnell used to take a number of 3-pointers every game, but this year he's averaging only five 3-point attempts a game
"Teams are thinking he's just a 3-point shooter and they come out on him. He just goes around them. He really worked on his pull-up jumper and he really developed that," Tim McConnell said. "I'm not just saying this because he's my son, but he worked pretty hard over the summer.
"He had a job at a wave pool. During lunch hour and after work, he'd go in a cement area and work on his ballhandling or lift weights somewhere."
McConnell doesn't seem worried about whether he can keep up this current scoring pace.
"I don't think that really matters. As long as we win. That's all I care about," McConnell said. "I think my teammates deserve a lot of credit for the points, too, because they get me the ball."
And vice versa.
"I like playing point guard," McConnell said.
Before McConnell's sophomore season, Duquesne coach Ron Everhart offered him a scholarship -- and McConnell accepted.
Many scoffed at Everhart's offer. Yeah, McConnell could shoot, but he was 5 feet 8 at the time. He was thin. He looked more like a Division III prospect at the time.
McConnell heard the critics, too.
"People said he did it just because my aunt coaches there," said McConnell, whose aunt, Suzie McConnell-Serio, is the women's coach at Duquesne. "People said I was too small to make it. That just motivated me to get better."
But even McConnell and his father admitted they weren't totally sure T.J. could make it at Duqeusne's level. They don't wonder any more because T.J. grew -- and so did his talent.
"Ever since I was little, I wanted to play Division I basketball, but I always thought size would be my downfall," McConnell said. "I was always, like, 20 times smaller than everyone."
Everhart doesn't hear anyone questioning his scholarship offer to McConnell these days. Everhart goes as far as calling McConnell an impact player in the Atlantic 10. He looked into his crystal ball a few years ago and thought McConnell would be a good prospect.
"Everyone thought I was absolutely out of my mind when I offered him," Everhart said. "I saw him play as a freshman and I thought he was very athletic then. He just wasn't as big or as strong as the other guys. ...
"I've been doing this stuff for 16 years as a head coach. I don't know if I've seen a high school kid who has the court awareness and vision that T.J. has. I think people lose sight of that just because he can score. Then on defense, his hands are on everything and he really knows how to stay in front of people."
Everhart plans to use McConnell as a point guard and shooting guard.
"I've always said that good basketball teams at any level have good guards, and whether they play the 1, 2 or 3 positions is irrelevant," Everhart said. "T.J. is going to be an impact player for us, no matter how you look at it. You can throw the position out the window. Will he play the point guard for us? Absolutely. Will he play the 2 position? Absolutely."
But foremost on McConnell's mind the next few months is something else.
"I'll give up that 3-point record or anything else to win the WPIAL," he said.
First Published January 8, 2010 12:00 am