When Mike Conley entered the NBA, he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. It was June 28, 2007, and Conley had just been selected by the Memphis Grizzlies with the 4th overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. Players that get picked that high have enough pressure as it is, but add the fact that the Grizzlies were theoretically supposed to have the number one pick after finishing a horrendous 2006-07 season with the worst record in the NBA, and that put even more pressure on the young point guard. That number one pick would have landed the Grizzlies the ever so coveted Kevin Durant. Needless to say, the Grizzlies organization and fans displayed collective disappointment.
It's not that Conley was not an excellent selection, it's just that any player the Grizzlies drafted was going to seem like a disappointment compared to Durant, who was supposed to be Memphis' "chosen one." Conley had to know this. Conley was just a nineteen-year-old boy. He was not prepared to handle that pressure and carry a franchise like any top five pick is expected to do, whether those expectations are realistic or not.
With an albatross around his neck, Conley began his NBA career with a slow start out of the gate, unlike his father, a track star. For the first three years of his professional career, Conley struggled to live up to the expectations of a fourth overall pick. Fair or not, criticism was hurled at Conley from all angles.
After being extremely successful on the basketball court in high school and college, Conley faced adversity on the court for the first time, and it was something that clearly bothered him and that he struggled to overcome. Early in his career, he admitted that he was sad and viewed everything in a negative light. That's why Conley got the tattoo he currently has on his right bicep. It is a Bible verse that reads "Forgive them Father for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34) In an interview, Conley says he got the tattoo as a reminder to be patient and to help him remember that ignorant people are always going to say negative things.
Ironically, the tattoo has a double meaning that pertains to Conley's career. He might have meant the tattoo to mean something else, but think about the tattoo in terms of how it represents Conley's career, whether he knows it does or not. As he stated himself, he was sad and frustrated the first several years of his career. He didn't know what he was doing both on and off the court. He was lost, but now it seems as if he has found himself both as a person and basketball player. After the conclusion of the Grizzlies 2012-13 season, it is safe to say that Conley has *officially* arrived on the big stage, and it's time for the NBA to take notice.
First, a look at Conley's stats.
|2012 - Mike Conley||80||34.5||5.2||11.8||44.0||1.3||3.7||36.2||2.9||3.5||83.0||0.5||2.3||2.8||6.1||2.4||2.2||0.3||2.1||14.6|
While most of Conley's statistics did not see a dramatic leap between last year and this season, there are several areas where Conley's improvement can be measured on paper. First, Conley averaged 14.6 PPG, a career high by almost one whole point per game. While Conley certainly deserves a lot of credit for improving his shot creation, shot selection, and being a more aggressive attacker with the ball in his hands over the last couple years, he certainly benefitted from Rudy Gay's departure at the midway point of this season. Gay's departure made Conley a more primary option on the Grizzlies offense, and he was an excellent second or third option all season. He even showed at times that he could step up and be the first option if the Grizzlies needed him to be.
With Gay gone, someone was supposedly going to have to step in and fill his shoes taking and *making* big shots, as if that's what Rudy did or something. Now, Conley will never be one to score thirty points in a game frequently, but that is not the type of player he is or needs to be rather. One thing Conley did do this season, rather impressively, is hit big shots. Enjoy several of those big shots below, including the sweetest of all against the Spurs.
Conley, of course, did a myriad of things other than score. He led the team in assists again, as he has every year since he has been with the team. He is not the fanciest passer in the league, but he finds open teammates at a high rate. Again, Conley's game is not flashy, but he is able to be a playmaker and create open shots for his teammates by using his quickness and his smarts to use picks effectively. He exhibited his ability to create plays for others more than ever this year, and he was able to look so calm while doing so. Although Conley is a six-year NBA veteran, his poise and ability to manage a game as a floor general is impressive for a twenty-five year old.
Many wondered how the youngster would react in the playoffs running the offense without Gay as a crutch. The stats below are telling. That is an astounding difference, and what it says is that Conley is able to step up on the biggest stage and perform at his best.
Conley's regular season stats: 14.6 PPG, 6.1 APG, and 2.8 RPG.
Conley's post season stats: 17.0 PPG, 7.1 APG, and 4.7 RPG.
It's not included in his playoff stats above, but really the only area in which he disappointed in the playoffs was free throw shooting. His percentage dropped from 83% in the regular season to 76.3% in the playoffs. Conley, as well as the rest of the Grizzlies, might want to spend a lot of time this offseason practicing from the charity stripe. But that's only a minor blimp on the radar that should be overlooked when looking at the big picture.
For as much as Conley improved on the offensive side of the ball, that is not even the most impressive thing about Conley's season. That title goes to his defense. Conley is known as one of the best defensive guards in the league. He now has an accolade to back up that reputation after being selected to the NBA's All-Defensive Second Team. There is only one starting point guard in the league that has a case for being a better defender than Conley: Chris Paul. That's pretty good company for Conley.
While Conley struggled at times defensively against Tony Parker in the Western Conference Finals, don't let that cloud the amazing defensive presence he brought to the Grizzlies all year long. He frequently locked up some of the best scoring point guards in the league with his uncanny footwork and quick hands. While Marc Gasol is widely seen as the anchor of the Grizzlies defense, take Conley out of the equation and the defense falls apart.
Conley's quick hands allowed him set a career high for himself in steals with 174, which turned out to be good enough to lead the league in that department. Along the way, he broke the Grizzlies franchise record for steals, an impressive accolade. This after he broke the Grizzlies all-time assists record in the same season. He will have undoubtedly smashed those records by the time he retires, hopefully as a Grizzly.
Although Conley made enormous strides this year on both offense and defense to put himself in the conversation as one of the best point guards in the NBA, many people continue to undervalue him. Kyle Soppe of Hickory-High wrote an interesting article recently about point guards better than Mike Conley. He listed these ten: Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker, Ty Lawson, Jrue Holiday, and Deron Williams, in that order.
What do all the guards on the above list have in common? They are all flashy players. This is not news, but the flashy players get all the attention and much more credit than they often deserve. Conley, on the other hand, is the farthest thing from flashy. After being a Grizzly for so long, Conley might even be offended to be labeled as flashy. One thing that is not mentioned on the list is Conley's all-around game. Take another look at the list. Paul is arguably the only player on that list with a better game both offensively and defensively than Conley. On another note, there might not be a single player on that list that fits the Grizzlies philosophy better than Conley. That should make Griz fans proud. Nobody has bought into Hollins system and the Grizzlies grit 'n grind style of play more than Conley, and buying into that style of play has paid dividends for Conley's career, most notably this season.
If Conley continues to play the Grizzly way, which he undoubtedly will, his career trajectory will go nowhere but up. Although many pundits and people inside NBA circles might underrate Conley, his demeanor would never let you know that bothers him. As long as Conley is helping the Grizzlies set regular season records for wins in a season and playing a large role in carrying the team farther than it has ever gone in the postseason, I doubt he will care about pundits doubts or whatever negative things they have to say about him.
After several rough seasons to start his career, Conley has settled into Memphis. He can be found at charity events around town frequently and mingling with friends on his twitter account. You can tell by his never-fading smile that he loves a city that loves him back.
After having such an impressive season, women will be clamoring for Conley and his dazzling smile. To bad for them, he is engaged. Yes, he is indeed moving on up in NBA circles. So much so that, just maybe, someday kids will want to be like Mike. Conley that is.
- Production - A
- General Grizznosity - A+
- Clutch Performance - A-
Final Grade: A