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The Mike Conley All-Stars

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Every now and then a player we think is good suddenly and unexpectedly becomes great. These are the next ones.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Most players' careers fit inside a gradual aging curve. Almost all rookies are bad. Most second year players are bad, but many become less bad and even -€” gasp -€” approach average or good play.

By the start of a player's second contract we generally settle on "what they are." Anthony Davis is already a superstar. Jordan Adams is already a bust.

There are players who defy that model. Maybe they seem to plateau like everyone else. Then a rule changes, or their game blossoms in an unexpected direction, and suddenly they are better than we ever thought they would be.

These are the Mike Conley All-Stars. These are players like Paul Millsap, and former Grizzly Kyle Lowry. We think we know what these guys are. Millsap and Lowry were good players we thought topped out at good. Then Millsap nursed a three point shot to passable, and suddenly he was attacking closeouts twenty feet from the rim. Lowry simply took more efficient shots, leveraging his large butt strength which allowed him to get more easy points via the free throw line. Suddenly he's an all-star and Olympian.

Mike Conley developed the craft necessary to finish at the rim, while also doggedly working on a three point stroke that is now above average.

Little changes can lead to big differences.

Here are the arbitrary ground rules for who qualifies for the Mike Conley All-Star Team:

1). Must be on their 2nd or 3rd NBA contracts, and over the age of twenty-four. Sorry Karl-Anthony Towns. Everybody already knows you will be great one day. Apologies to C.J. McCollum, who seems like a decent bet for an all-star slot at some point in the future.

2). This term is fungible, but these guys have not yet played at an {extreme Kenny Smith voice} "ALL-STAR CALIBER LEVEL". Sorry Serge Ibaka (twice top three for DPOY). Sorry Nicolas Batum (last year). You guys have already been a spot or two away from an All-Star/All-NBA team.

3). Unquantifiable though this term may be, these are relatively "good" players who could unexpectedly make the leap to great. Not bad players who could make the leap to good (see: Kent Bazemore, DeMarre Carroll).

With no further ado, the Mike Conley All-Stars, loosely arranged in a starting five, are:

Eric Bledsoe -€” I typically prefer watching skill instead of athleticism. Bledsoe is an exception to this rule. He is sneakily one of the best guys to watch live. You'd never put him in the Lebron James/Russell Westbrook/John Wall tier, but Bledsoe makes me say OH MY GAWD with equal frequency. He's a cruise missile to the restricted area, and on defense an Ultralight Beam.

Injuries, man. Injuries.

Bledsoe has had both cartilage and meniscus damage to his knees. For a player who relies on his power and speed, this is a problem. It's not just that his athleticism may be sapped by the knife; it's that sometimes players have to fundamentally change the way they play the game because they want to avoid future injuries.

Would either scenario be a disaster for Bledsoe?  It could be. But it could go the other way.

Bledsoe has turned himself into a cromulent shooter from distance, but he still creates little gravity with the defense. His easiest path to becoming an elite guard is to cut down his turnovers. High usage begets turnovers, but Bledsoe's turnovers often come by over-dribbling, attempting to do too much, or leaping around and over defenders instead of leaping into them and drawing fouls. Bledsoe used 27% of his team's possessions. His status as a physical freak is decidedly bonafide. And yet he drew just 5.5 free throw attempts per game. That's one less than Kyle Lowry, three less than Demar Derozan, and five less than James Harden.

One does not have to squint to see a great player inside Bledsoe. A few more free throws, a few less turnovers, and suddenly he's there.

Khris Middleton -€” Middleton has established himself as an elite three point shooter, attempting over four per game and making 40% of them for a shooting starved Bucks team.

Last year was a mixed bag for Middleton, and proof that NBA development does not travel along straight paths. Middleton's rebounds dropped a full two over his previous season while his turnovers skyrocketed. His three point percentage stayed flat (with more attempts), but his two point percentage declined after showing improvement.

But the numbers that showed Middleton's changing role are his assist rate and free throw attempts, which both rose precipitously.

Middleton had only used an evenly distributed number of possessions (19.1%, 19.9%) before last year, when it rose marginally to 23%.

With only that slight increase in usage, Middleton's assist rate rose from 12.7% up to 18.9%. Even more impressively, he attempted 300 more shots and twice as many free throws as he did in any year previous.

Middleton's game is evolving from a catch and shoot guy to more of a secondary ball-handler who can occasionally run the offense. It doesn't hurt that his teammates are evolving with him. The NBA Twitterati has already penciled Giannis Antetokounmpo into multiple all-star games, but Middleton is the player who fits most seamlessly with the modern game. The threat of his shot opens up the rest of his game, and one wonders what Middleton's game would look like with more shooting around him.

Middleton needs his reps as a ball-handler, and that might be the biggest stumbling block for his development. With both Giannis and Jabari needing more possessions, one wonders if last year's increased assists will be a one year blip, instead of a trend.

Chandler Parsons -€” Spoiler alert: this is a Grizzlies website.

Parsons has been predictably productive over the last four years. Per 36 minutes, he's good for around 16 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1.5 stocks (steals + blocks). His shooting percentage has stayed within a relatively narrow and efficient range, and were it not for an injury that limited his minutes last year, I'd suggest those numbers were trending slightly upwards.

This is a bet that increasing his usage from 20% to 25% will have big effects to Parsons' points and assist numbers. The Grizzlies crave Parsons' skill set, and 25% is a big but reasonable uptick in usage. Maybe 16/5.5/3/1.5 becomes 18/5/4/1.5. It's not out of the question.

This is a bet that in the latter half of his contract with the Grizzlies, Parsons will play more as a stretch four (he's averaged 35% of his minutes the last two years as a stretch four).

This is a bet that some of the on-off metrics, increasingly a barometer for ranking and rating players, will sneakily shade towards Parsons because his replacements are nowhere near as skilled, and the Grizzlies offense will suffer without his ball handling and shooting.

Derrick Favors -€” Many will view fellow "Musician" Gordon Hayward (Hrdlicka Note: We need a better term for "Guy who plays on the Jazz," than "Jazzman". Don't get me wrong. "Jazzman" is appropriately absurd, and I love it. But there's room to explore there) as a shoe-in for this list, and that's perhaps why Favors is more deserving.

Coming into the NBA after one year of college, Derrick Favors was a project. Heading into his seventh year, the last two of which he posted a PER higher than 21, and per 36 minute totals of 18 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 stocks, his game is still improving.

Let me repeat that. Derrick Favors would have been an all-star in the Eastern Conference and he is still improving. He shot over 70% from the free throw line for the first time in his career. His usage rate has improved to about 24% while his turnover rate has declined.

Favors does all the things you want bigs to do, while also doing some of the things you want wings to do. Hayward and Rodney Hood will have the ball in their hands most of the time, but Favors is a hell of a passer once he catches the pass on the pick and roll, able to make quick decisions in tight spaces before the defense recovers. 

This ability adds a vital playmaking dimension to a Utah team that often finds breaking down a defense difficult late in games.

Favors' Achilles heel is an injury history that has never allowed him to play a full 82-game season. He has only played more than 74 games once since coming to Utah, and last year he missed twenty games.

Favors' development has been influenced, just like Middleton's, by his teammates. Both players have had to adjust their games to do what their teams need. The presence of elite rim-protector Rudy Gobert has necessitated Favors playing fewer minutes as a lone big, and as a result he's had to stretch his defensive skill set to the perimeter in a way that is rarely required of bigs. This is a good thing. Necessity is the mother of invention, and Favors is learning on the job.

If I had to bet on any player from this list making the leap, it would be Derrick Favors.

Nikola Vucevic -€” To date, Vuc has been a productive but flawed player in the NBA. The Magic have found just how difficult it is to construct a winning team when your center doesn't protect the rim on defense and uses possessions at the elbow that end in long twos.

Vuc's skill set is tantalizing. Though ground bound, he is a great rebounder. His free throw stroke (73% career) and shooting touch outside of 16 feet (46.8% and 48.2% the last two seasons) suggest that, if cultivated, a 3 point shot could be in his future. Moving out to the arc would hamper his good offensive rebound numbers, however that skill will already begin to fade in his later 20s, and extending his range will create an alternate path to efficiency.

Another reason to be encouraged is that Vucevic's usage increased to 26% the last two years, but his shooting percentages have remained intact. Usually an increase in usage comes with a decline in efficiency. My theory is that more defenses are comfortable ceding long twos to Vuc and don't contest as hard as they would if he drove more, but there are much worse ways to bail out a possession than throwing it to a big man who can shoot 46% from the perimeter.

The main reason I'm hopeful for Vucevic's future is he is about to be coached by the center whisperer himself, Frank Vogel. Vogel turned Roy Hibbert into a DPOY. He transformed Ian Mahinmni from a stench guy (a bench player who starts) into a $64mm man whose family will never have to work again. One can only hope Vogel works on commission.

If Vogel can work his magic again with Vucevic, then a major stumbling block is removed. Vuc isn't blessed with athleticism, however he should be agile enough to be in the right position often enough to create problems.

I'm a little surprised that the Magic signed Bismack Biyombo in the off-season, because if Vogel has proven anything it is that he can get the most out of centers defensively.

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