While the top scorers with flashy buckets, dunks, long-range triples, and dazzling dances get all the attention, the NBA is also searching high and low for a different skill set—a more complimentary role for said flashy filler uppers. Caleb McConnell fits that mold.
Three-pointers are the currency of basketball and high-level defense in a sport that is ever-evolving with unique and near-unstoppable scorers ranks right there with it. Combining the two gives you the most sought-after service in the association.
Inside the mind of a 3-and-D role player with Caleb McConnell ahead of the NBA G League season.
While the 3-and-D moniker is one that gets you paid in the NBA, it is rarely a starting point for basketball players who reach that promised land.
“In High School, you’re able to do whatever you want; usually, you are the best player on the team in High School, you are able to shoot whenever you want and do whatever you want,” McConnell explained to me.
That is how most players start: A star catalyst for their prep school, but things change as you move up the ladder.
As McConnell and I discussed how he conformed to this role, “When I got to college, man, I played with some great teammates. I had to learn how to play with those guys, who were high-volume guys, taking the majority of the shots. I had to reteach myself to learn the system, trust the system, and trust my teammates.”
Imagine you work your entire life for something, you get good enough at it to reach a pinnacle, only a tiny percentage of hopefuls do, and you immediately have to rework everything about yourself. Oh, and if you have hopes of continuing to climb, you have at most four years to relearn the sport you have played your entire life, and each day, new challengers are aiming for your spot while each year brings a fresh new batch of hopefuls.
That is a thankless and egoless job that takes a unique mindset: “My biggest thing is, I just want to win. My ego is totally out the door.” McConnell announced.
OKC Blue bench boss Kameron Woods knows what it takes to adapt to a new role, to play high-level basketball in college, and translate to the G League, when I asked him about McConnell, Woods said, “He really does not have an ego. I think being a 3-and-D guy, a defender with a limited role on offense, it is a hard role to get into. You do not have a chance if you have an ego.”
Woods praised McConnell’s “contagious energy” that he brings to the gym each and every day. The same gym where the OKC Thunder started as a franchise.
A converted roller rink with the skating bones still shining through, the smell of dog food slamming you in the face as soon as you step into the parking lot, but facility built by future Hall of Famers and role players who climbed the same ladder McConnell is trying to.
Despite being undrafted, Caleb McConnell is far from inexperienced. A three-year starter with 142 college games under his belt, the Rutgers product earned two Defensive Player of the Year awards in one of the toughest conferences in college basketball.
His defensive reputation led him to be given a fitting nickname, “The Blanket,” which was first coined by his girlfriend’s father.
“I love that nickname,” McConnell smiled. “My Girlfriend’s dad is a crazy basketball junkie, out of nowhere, he was like, ‘You need a name! You need a name!’ and me, I am the type of guy that’s like it’s whatever, I just want to play.” the 23-year-old chuckled.
“We were playing in the Garden against Michigan State, and he comes with a blanket that has ‘the blanket’ written on it, and he is waving it up and down. Everyone is kinda like, ‘What’s that?’ but they caught on. Okay, the blanket, Caleb McConnell, Defense, he has you covered.” McConnell continued to explain the nicknames’ origins.
Caleb McConnell is not ashamed or embarrassed by the nickname’s attention, saying, “I think it is a totally awesome name, and I would love to take it and run with it.”
In that contest against the Spartans, the Scarlet Knights came away with a 61-53 victory while McConnell swiped four steals, living up to the hype on that end of the floor under the MSG lights.
Friday’s season opener represents a different challenge for McConnell. He will go toe-to-toe with NBA veterans like Tony Bradley, Theo Pinson, and Justin Jackson, while possibly matching up with a first-round pick in this very draft class, Olivier-Maxence Prosper.
“I know I have holes in my game, I know I have some deficiencies,” McConnell explained, but he feels like the Blue is the right spot to develop and sharpen his skillset in hopes of stepping into the NBA limelight.
Embarking on his pro debut for Oklahoma City, McConnell told me the history of the Blue graduating players to the NBA factored into his decision to start his journey here. The defensive ace might be the next in line to complete his capstone.