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VOL. 129 | NO. 12 | Friday, January 17, 2014

 

‘Under the Radar’ Conley Carrying Grizzlies This Season

By Don Wade

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Already, the national conversation has started. Who deserves to be on the NBA’s Western Conference All-Star team?

In Memphis, that question has become personal as fans and players stump for point guard Mike Conley. After Conley scored 31 points with seven assists (his second straight 30-point performance) in a five-point win over Phoenix, Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph pretty much spoke for everyone with a vested interest on this topic.

“He’s an All-Star to me,” Randolph said. “People might say different, but the way he’s been playing and carrying us, he is.”

Three days later, on Jan. 13, a writer for USA Today Sports, Sam Amick, said different. Even with the Clippers’ Chris Paul and the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook out with injuries, he put them on the All-Star team (Paul is projected to return by then, Westbrook’s status is less certain).The writer also slid Golden State’s Stephen Curry over to shooting guard just to put him in the starting lineup and then found room to put San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker (no argument) and Portland point guard Damian Lillard on the roster (also a legit pick).

At the time this writer made his selections, the Grizzlies were under .500 (they reached .500 at 19-19 with their Jan. 15 win at Milwaukee). So that didn’t help Conley’s cause. But Conley was not even mentioned. Which more than anything proves that there were no coaches in the room.

“He is underrated, undervalued, under the radar,” said Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer, who spent many years on San Antonio’s bench as an assistant watching Parker. “There is a lot of respect for (Conley) on both ends of the court. He is a really good defender. He is creating (turnovers) with his pressure. He just has a great feel and understanding on defense. He sets the table for them on offense. He is just a really high, high level point guard. Hopefully, the rest of the league appreciates that.”

Still, it could be that the crowd of talented point guards in the West is just too much for Conley to make the team. But maybe the very question – is Mike Conley an All-Star? – is the wrong question. The better questions:

Is there any point guard who is more valuable to his team than Conley is to the Grizzlies? And given that with Conley playing the way he is – “I feel like I’m playing at an all-time level (for me) right now,” he said – what would have happened to the Grizzlies during that 23-game stretch without center Marc Gasol had Conley been ordinary?

They went 10-13 with Conley playing great; they also lost two games in that span when Conley was out with injury.

Through games of Jan. 15, Conley was averaging a team-high 18.0 points per game, 6.5 assists, and 1.6 steals. In the advanced stats, Conley’s 89.8 touches per game ranked fifth and the only point guard from the West ahead him was Paul. Parker and Denver’s Ty Lawson were the only point guards in the West to have scored more points on drives.

“He’s there every night,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. “As a coach you want a guy who’s going to be there every night doing those little things that put you in a winning position. I don’t know if he’ll become an All-Star this year, but he’s right there. He’s close.”

Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson played 17 seasons in the NBA as a point guard. He didn’t score like Conley (11.5 career average), but he put up bigger assist numbers (9.5) and rebounded well (4.5). He made one All-Star team in his second season with the New York Knicks when he averaged a career-best 17.7 points after being the NBA Rookie of the Year the previous season.

“You look at him and there’s nothing great, but everything’s very, very good,” Jackson said. “He has a great IQ, very good on defensive end, very good shooter, very good using both hands, very good getting in the paint. There’s a lot of times that checkmarks on the board become boring, but the guy’s awfully good.”

At FedExForum, fans are now used to hearing the Roadrunner “beep-beep” after another quick Conley drive and finish at the rim. But truth to be told, the cartoon character had more flash, that blurring point A-to-point-B speed.

“He’s very unique in how he can change speeds,” Budenholzer said. “He’s kind of more of a quarterback, probing and setting the table, and then he’ll surprise you with that burst.”

When this was passed on to Conley, he agreed: “That’s a pretty good assessment. I’m more one to analyze things and take what they give me.”

The Conley-doubters early in his career have been well-documented. Even now, Conley laughs as he recalls those days when he could be walking through Wolfchase Galleria, and hear, “Aw, man, that’s Mike Conley; he’s terrible.”

Former Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins stuck with Conley and, no small point, Conley never gave up on himself. Now, in his seventh NBA season at age 26, the quiet and humble Conley hasn’t just elevated his game, but asserted himself as a leader.

“He’s taken responsibility for defining whether we’re successful or not,” Memphis coach Dave Joerger said.

Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek’s a believer. During the Grizzlies’ recent 104-99 victory over the Suns, Hornacek was yelling at his team to deny Conley the ball. Afterward, Hornacek said: “He sees every possible defensive rotation. He picks them apart.”

And yet none of this might be enough to make him an All-Star.

“I’d love to be,” Conley said. “I’m showing people what I can do. I have no control over it.”

What he does control, to a large degree?

His team’s future. Their chances to, like Conley himself, probe and probe and probe and then make that burst into the Western Conference playoffs. Once again defining whether the Grizzlies are successful or not.

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