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Harris: NBA could be in McConnell's future

| Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012

When the 2010 PIAA Class AAA state championship basketball game ended, Philadelphia's Neumann-Goretti — featuring four Division I recruits, including La Salle signee Tyreek Duren, along with a top 10 national ranking — defeated Chartiers Valley, 65-63. But not before a point guard named T.J. McConnell played a game that people wouldn't soon forget, racking up 32 points, 12 rebounds and five steals.

Hearing that a rematch of sorts will commence when McConnell's Duquesne's Dukes host Duren's La Salle Explorers on Saturday night at Palumbo Center, I asked La Salle coach John Giannini to put their latest duel in perspective.

"Both teams do a lot of switching on defense, so they won't always be head-to-head," Giannini said of McConnell versus Duren. "But they're two great point guards. The reason that both programs can be optimistic in this game and looking to the future is they know they have a guy who's a difference-maker for now and years to come. Both players give their teams great confidence. Both of their performances will have a lot to do with who wins the game."

McConnell and Duren lead their respective teams in assists and steals, as well as the all-important assist/turnover ratio. McConnell leads the Atlantic 10 in assists and steals and is second in assist/turnover ratio; he's tied for second nationally in steals. Duren is fifth in the Atlantic 10 in assists, seventh in steals and fourth in assist/turnover ratio.

McConnell, in particular, is enjoying a special season in a league that's noted for strong point guard play. He's already displaying legitimate NBA potential.

He's averaging 11.7 points and 4.3 rebounds, and shooting 51.4 percent from the floor — including 48.2 percent from 3-point range, good for second in the A-10. He's also averaging a team-high 33.5 minutes per game. He's one of nine players in Division I to record a triple-double this season.

"He has a rating that shows he can play. He has an NBA rating," said basketball historian Dave Heeren. "You're talking low first round, high second."

Upon evaluating McConnell's statistics this season, Heeren concluded that he needs to expand his offensive game and shoot more. Heeren doesn't believe McConnell is challenging defenses enough to become a consistent scoring threat at the next level.

McConnell averages 8.6 shots per game, raking him fifth among a group of elite Atlantic 10 point guards that includes Chaz Williams of Massachusetts (12.8 shots per game), Xavier's Tu Holloway (10.5), Dayton's Kevin Dillard (10.4) and Duren (9.6).

"He needs to score a little bit more," Heeren said. "You can acquire a mid-range game. He's an efficient shooter, but he doesn't score much."

McConnell is a point guard, after all. It's his job to run the offense, distribute the basketball and make his teammates happy.

According to Duquesne coach Ron Everhart, his star point guard should put himself first more often.

"He's a great leader, really unselfish, and he's all about the team. Sometimes, he's too good to be true," Everhart said. "There are times T.J. should be conscious of using that pull-up jumper, or getting that extra hard dribble and getting his shoulder past that defender and taking it to the rim and laying it in.

"We've got to get him more shots. We've got to get more guys in the backcourt with his mentality, in terms of getting everybody else a shot because he takes great shots and he's a very good shooter."

Everhart said McConnell compares favorably to one of his former point guards, J.J. Barea, who signed a four-year, $19 million contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves after winning an NBA championship with the Dallas Mavericks last season.

"T.J. and J.J. are very similar. They're very close in terms of the way they see the floor," said Everhart, who coached Barea at Northeastern before arriving at Duquesne. "Barea was a little more aggressive in terms of trying to score. What Barea did his last two years (at Northeastern) was he got weight-room conscious and really pressured the ball on defense.

"At the NBA level, they put a high priority on guards that can defend. I think for T.J. to get to the next level, the most important thing is for him to pack on about 10 pounds of muscle and really work in the offseason to get better laterally so he's more effective guarding the ball with pressure."

In just his second season at Duquesne, McConnell appears to be well on his way.

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