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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Rookies in the NBA: How first-year ex-Wildcats are faring in The Association

Tyler Baker
Former Arizona guard TJ McConnel dribbles the ball up to the basket during Arizona’s 69-51 win against Utah at McKale Center on Jan 17, 2015.

The madness behind the NBA season that consisted of the Golden State Warriors chasing the best regular season record in history thanks to help of former Arizona Wildcats — player or coach — is coming to an end.

With the defending champions on the legendary path to greatness, the secondary focus of former Wildcats in the NBA was on the first-year players from the 2015 Elite Eight squad.

Drafted or undrafted, the Arizona rookies found a home in the association and the potential for the trio of Wildcats is much brighter than most expected.

T.J. McConnell:

The point guard that stole the hearts of many took his talents from Arizona to the Philadelphia 76ers as an undrafted free agent. The odds were against McConnell from the get-go given he went to a rebuilding team that didn’t have the star-studded roster surrounding him like at Arizona.

The NBA gave McConnell lemons and it was up to him to make sweet lemonade to ensure a future in the association.

McConnell played for the Sixers summer league team averaging 5.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, which was just enough to land him a roster spot for the 2016 season.

With a team built around Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel, there was a ray of hope for McConnell. The only issue McConnell had to deal with was when Sixers picked up point guard Ish Smith from the New Orleans Pelicans for two second-round draft picks.

Smith already having the reputation as a prolific scorer and a flashy ball handler fitted the system, because Philadelphia needed another scoring option other than the big men.

Smith sprained his ankle in February, giving McConnell the opportunity to take the reins. The Sixers have problems from every face of the franchise and have a league worst 9-68 record, but McConnell is averaging six points, 4.4 assists and 1.2 steals in losses this season while averaging seven points, 4.7 assists and 1.3 steals in wins.

McConnell can’t save the Sixers overnight, but earning Player of the Month for March is a worthy sign of potential success for McConnell in the City of Brotherly Love.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson:

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson hasn’t revealed his abilities after he fractured his right ankle and had to undergo surgery in December. Before going down, Hollis-Jefferson earned his first career double-double performance with 13 points and 11 rebounds for the Brooklyn Nets against the Boston Celtics in November.

During December, Hollis-Jefferson averaged five points and six rebounds per game, but the surgery set him back until the March 22 matchup with the Charlotte Hornets.

The Brooklyn Nets are another organization that has come under heat, especially after potentially ruining their future with their first-round draft lottery pick going to Boston from the Paul Pierce trade in 2013, but a player like Hollis-Jefferson gives the Nets a breath of fresh, young air.

Since Hollis-Jefferson is a defensive-minded player, Brooklyn will most likely go after offensive weapons to add more balance in the future.

Stanley Johnson:

The former No. 8 pick of the NBA Draft entered the best situation possible of the group after the Detroit Pistons since they already have an all-star center in Andre Drummond with an up-and-coming point guard in Reggie Jackson. Johnson is the wing player that can emerge as a building block of the future for the Pistons.

Through January, Johnson averaged just less than 25 minutes per game with 9.7 points per game and went on a hot streak in late January through early February with six consecutive games of scoring in double-digits.

The entire season, Johnson was able to stay healthy and averaged 8.3 points and 4.2 rebounds per game, so he wasn’t a difference maker, but he’s less than two weeks away from being a part of a playoff team that is competing in a wide-open Eastern Conference.

The Pistons are flirting with the No. 7 and No. 8 spot so it’s either Johnson gets a date with Toronto Raptors forward DeMar DeRozan or LeBron James in the opening round of playoffs.

Follow Justin Spears on Twitter

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