It’d be easy to say that this was the season where Mike Conley finally lived up to his draft position. It would also be easy to say that this was the season that he continued to wilt, especially as the lights became brighter as the season and postseason wore on.
As with most other things in life, the answer lies at neither extreme….but Mike Conley, just where do we think you’re going???
The past: largely disappointment. Not completely, but mostly. Conley was a bit doomed from the start in his debut season-the Griz fell as far as possible in the lottery, and the fanbase, during that very difficult time for the team, needed more of a savior than Conley was ready, able, and maybe even willing to be.
When then-coach Marc Iavaroni referred to Conley as a “Ferrari” and told him that he’d be handed the keys, it was too much for a 20-year-old (ok, he turned 21 that October) who came out of college, by most accounts, too early. The “pressure” (as much as a rookie PG on a lottery-bound team can experience, anyway) was too much for him, and he often looked, as one might expect, like a fish out of water, deer in the headlights, insert cliche here. The stats for the first season weren’t awful -not great, but not awful-but it was his demeanor that was much more of a concern. For a “Ferrari”, he sure didn’t hit the gas much, although again, he didn’t exactly have a ton of potent weapons to which he might pass. The now-infamous (and much better understood) “locked room” situation evidently weighed heavily on Conley, but as this season proved, he was a guy who could lead a team who lost its most talented player to a season-ending injury, and Kyle Lowry was not. For those uninformed, the “locked room” refers to the situation at the PG position for the Grizzlies after the team acquired Javaris Crittenton from LAL as part of the Marc Gasol acquisition transaction. Chris Wallace, addressing the PG logjam, said “well, we’ll lock ’em all in a room and see who comes out first”. Bye, Kyle. Bye, JCritt. Over the next two seasons, Conley settled in the mid-40’s as far as FG%, which is to this day one of the weak points of his game…44 needs to be about 46 for the ability he has and the needs the team had/has. Going from past to present, one of the things I’ve most enjoyed about Conley’s Grizzlies tenure? Durability. A shoulder injury kept him out for a good portion of his rookie season, limiting him to 53 games, but he’s been at 80 games or better for the most recent three campaigns. Nothing better than having your starting PG around for the entire season to help with continuity for a young, young team.
The present? Sounds weird to say, but pretty disappointing. Now put down the tomatoes and listen. I was a pretty proud member of the Conley fan club for most of the recent season, but his finishing and shooting in the playoffs was just flat-out not good. The cause? When teams (i.e. the Thunder) collapsed on ZBo and Gasol, the scoring, especially in the first and fourth quarters, fell to Conley on many occasions-and he missed 62% of the time in total in his first playoff experience. Do we give him a pass? Nah, we don’t. He wasn’t a rookie thrown into the playoffs. He’s improved in many areas over his now-several seasons in the NBA, and his poise improved greatly-but accuracy in shooting is one of the best barometers of poise under pressure, and from the field as well as the line he just didn’t cut the mustard when the brightest of lights came a-shining. On the other hand, the choke was not complete-he thankfully did not show an increased propensity for giving the ball to the other team (except by missed shots). Overall, though….gotta improve the shooting, Mike.
The future? Did I mention shooting? ‘Cuz that’s what has to improve, especially in the FT department. Is it easier for a player to improve his FT shooting than his FG shooting? We’ll see. With Conley not really varying AT ALL FG-wise over the last three seasons, I’m inclined to think that the 44 range is where he’s going to be. Hope I’m wrong and he’s able to push that to about 46%. FT’s, however….a player with the lane penetration ability Conley has simply MUST get closer to the 80% mark, if not over it, to achieve to his highest potential. His court vision and ability to choose among options coming off an initial pick/screen are both more than acceptable…but it’s never enough. Having Rudy, Marc, AND ZBo from which to choose next season (yes, there’s going to be one, and don’t try to slap me with the cold fish of reality about that, please) will make that more fun for Conley but also more complicated.
We’re all encouraged by Conley’s improvement in the mental as well as the physical aspects of the game, but there’s still further to go….