“If I would compare him to a Ferrari, I’d do that,” said at-the-moment head coach of the Grizzlies, Marc Iavaroni, regarding their first round selection in the 2007 NBA draft. He was talking about the quick, slick point guard out of Ohio State, Mike Conley Jr. Now in his sixth season in the league, Conley has emerged as the surefire engine of this team.
With a gorgeous highlight alley-oop to Rudy Gay, Conley logged his 2070th career assist, placing him in sole possession of first place for career assists in a Grizzlies’ uniform. He bested the 2069 number posted by the cult-hero and former Grizzlies point guard, Jason Williams. He finished the game with 11 assists on the night against OJ Mayo and the Mavs, putting him at 2079 dimes and counting. With this milestone achievement, let’s take a second to recognize the fact that the evolution of Mike Conley as a player has been a thing to behold.
He entered the league at the ripe age of 19 years old, on the heels of a fantastic NCAA tournament showing at Ohio State alongside top national prospect and lifelong teammate, Greg Oden. His entry into the draft may have been a bit premature, but it was understandable given the circumstances. His draft stock at the time was likely the highest it would have been had he stayed in school, as he benefited from the exposure yielded to the school by Oden’s presence, as well as being part of a draft class in which the next-best point guard prospects were Acie Law and Javaris Crittenton (who were interestingly enough both Grizzlies for a hot minute). It was apparent that he was in fact out of school a bit too early, as his starstruck first year in the NBA showed him to be what he was: a talented nineteen year old kid, who wasn’t quite ready for the big time. His early career, as chronicled right here on this blog , was frustrating for Mike and fans alike. Mike even got a tattoo, chronicling his internalization of and response to the negative energy surrounding him.
But Conley channeled that energy as fuel for the fire, as he has put in the work behind the scenes to elevate his game year after year as chronicled in today’s article by Matt Moore. We’ve witnessed the benefits of his time in the weight room as he physically chiseled and buffed his physique over time to handle the bump and grind of the NBA game. We have noted the effects of work put in with a sports psychologist as he has stepped up as a confident leader of this team, and the excellent decision making he has exuded in said role. The whole team feeds off his presence on the court. He can go 2-10 from the floor and still have a net positive impact on a game, like we saw last night against Dallas, which takes poise. Speaking of shooting, we have enjoyed the rewards of the time he has spent putting up shots in the gym, as he has improved his shooting percentage from beyond the arc to over 40 percent on the year, with a make and a half per game average. More important has been the emergence of his ability to hit the timely shot, pulling the Grizz out of a slump, or setting the tone early on. We have watched as he has devoured and internalized every ounce of knowledge that has emanated from head coach, and former NBA champion point guard, Lionel Hollins, and absorbed as much skill and grit as possible (minus the crazy!) from defensive wizard Tony Allen, to elevate himself to the level of elite defensive status. At this rate, he should definitely see his name in strong consideration for an all-NBA defense team. He’s second to only Chris Paul as a ball-hawk, boasting a rate of 2.4 steals per game. And speaking of, we saw him rise to the occasion and play Paul straight up for a grueling seven game playoff series against the Clippers. If he wasn’t under the weather for game seven, we might have had some completely different discussions at the end of last season. Finally, we have seen him embrace the Memphis community that was not always quite as patient with him.
The Grizzlies have logged 381 games worth of mileage on their Ferrari, who is still only 25 years young and mature beyond his years as a professional athlete. The present is bright, and I have every reason to believe that the future will be even brighter. What’s next for Mike? With one more field goal connected, he will pass O.J. for 6th all time on the Grizzlies’ list. He’ll go for it tonight, in what figures to be a tough matchup against Jeremy Lin and the Rockets.