Out Of The Blue
Overshadowed as an amateur and undervalued as a young pro, Mike Conley is now on the way to making a serious name for himself in Memphis.
by Abe Schwadron | @abe_squad
When Mike Conley agreed to play in the FedEx St. Jude Classic Pro-Am golf tournament in Memphis earlier this summer, he figured it would be a rare chance to enjoy a relaxing round with a foursome filled out by local fans. He was geared up and ready to pose for photos and perhaps even sign an autograph or two for the weekend hackers in his group.
Instead, he arrived at TPC Southwind for a 12:20 tee time only to find himself billed to play with a very different trio: Julius Erving, Rick Barry and Penny Hardaway.
“It was supposed to be regular guys, it wasn’t supposed to be three other celebrities in the group, so I’m thinking I’d be around three other, like, businessmen. But it was three legends, and then me,” says Conley, who just completed his fifth NBA season and still won’t turn 25 for a few more months. “I was texting everybody I knew and they were all jealous that I was getting this opportunity to basically spend five hours with some of the greatest basketball players ever.”
Beyond thanking the scramble format for keeping his strokes down, the Grizzlies guard won’t say how the course played that day or what he shot. Not that he cares, though, since the afternoon was a win no matter how he hit ’em. After all, Conley, the starting point guard for the Memphis Grizzlies, spent the afternoon soaking up lessons from three men with a combined 23 NBA All-Star Game appearances, a pair of League titles and an Olympic Gold medal.
Even in the presence of two Hall-of-Fame forwards, Conley gravitated toward the best golfer of the gang, the ex-player who also happened to hit his NBA prime during Conley’s formative years.
“Penny was one of my favorite players growing up,” Conley says of Hardaway, a native of Memphis, who, for a few too-short years in the ’90s, was one of the best players in the League.
Continues Conley: “It’s cool, because he’s had so many different experiences and so much wisdom that he can trickle down to you. I think the biggest thing watching him, more than anything, was his demeanor on and off the court. He was a true professional, but in between the lines, he brought it to another level—with his focus and the way he approached the game. He approached basketball a lot like he approaches his golf game now. He’s very, very into golf and focused. When we got done playing 18 holes, after six hours, he went right to the driving range to try to fix something he couldn’t figure out.”
A similar level of focus has helped Conley become a key cog for a Memphis team that’s now been to back-to-back postseasons for the first time since 2006, including the first Playoff series win in franchise history in ’10-11. In fact, before Conley, teammates Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and head coach Lionel Hollins came along, the Grizzlies had never won a single post-season game, having been swept in the franchise’s three previous appearances.
This past May, the Los Angeles Clippers bounced the “grit-and-grind” Grizzlies in an eminently entertaining first-round Playoff series, despite Conley turning regular-season averages of 12.7 points, 6.5 assists, 2.5 boards and 38 percent three-point shooting up to 14.1 ppg, 7.1 apg, 3.3 rpg and 50 percent from deep during the seven-game battle.
That Playoff jump wasn’t an aberration, either. The 6-1, fleet-footed, ambidextrous guard raised his play up to new heights in ’10-11 too, when he averaged 15.2 ppg in the Grizz’s post-season run. “Playoffs are a time that you amp it up another notch,” Conley says.
“Over the course of a season, I’m the type of guy that always tries to get everybody involved, and we win a lot of games that way,” Conley adds. “Me averaging 13 points a game is perfect for our team, and I understand that. In the Playoffs, the situations change, as teams try to take away our first and second options, and that’s when I come into play and try to become more aggressive. I understand that if we’re going to win, it’s going to be because I was aggressive.”
Still, in helping Memphis become a legit contender in the Western Conference, in upping the ante every postseason, in improving every offseason, Conley has had to face a constant drone of criticism that’s surrounded him every step of the way. Because even for the son of an Olympic Gold medalist triple jumper (Mike Sr) and the nephew of a former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker (Steve), physical talents alone haven’t always been enough to succeed at the highest level—or please the public.
When the Grizzlies made Conley the No. 4 overall pick in the ’07 Draft, there were reservations about his long-term potential and questions about how much he, in his one season at Ohio State, had benefited from playing alongside Greg Oden, the No. 1 overall pick that same year. When his career in Memphis got off to a slow start, many wondered whether he would ever beat out former Lottery pick Kyle Lowry or veteran and close friend Damon Stoudamire for the starting point guard slot.
And just when things were looking up for Conley—finishing his third season as the team leader in assists for a 40-win Grizzlies squad and opening ’10-11 with a ridiculous three-game stretch over which he posted 15 points, 8.3 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 3.7 steals per contest—what should have been a happy moment brought about the biggest onslaught of negative attention.
In November 2010, less than a week into a contract year, Conley inked a five-year extension worth more than $40 million, prompting a flurry of headlines across the blogosphere that labeled the decision a regrettable one. “Grizzlies in a rush to overpay for Conley,” read a headline at SI.com, while others were even more critical. One CBSSports.com opinion called the deal “franchise suicide,” going on to deem Conley’s new contract “the worst move in the history of the Grizzlies” because, in the author’s words, “Mike Conley is the worst starting point guard in the NBA.”
Conley couldn’t help but hear the buzz, too. He says the noise pushed him to work harder, as he was determined to prove not only to his harshest critics, but also to his teammates and coaches, that he was worth all $40 mill—and more. Less than a month later, the aforementioned CBS blogger wrote an apology for his premature, vicious assessment of the deal. Not even two years later, and any lingering disdain for Conley’s contract is scant.
“It’s a weird way the world works,” Conley observes. “People will be quick to put you down and tell you what you can’t do. But once you start doing what they say you can’t, they don’t really say much else. They don’t even acknowledge that you’re doing good. It’s a weird way things get handled, but I can’t worry about the outside world. I can only worry about what I do and how I can improve.”
Looking back, “weird” might also be an appropriate term to describe the way Conley’s career has played out, as compared to some of his more-hyped friends from high school. As teammates at Lawrence North in Indy, the Conley and Oden won three straight state titles and became part of a highly touted Ohio State recruiting class—which included David Lighty, Othello Hunter and current Thunder reserve Daequan Cook, then an AAU teammate of Oden’s and Conley’s—deemed the “Thad 5” in reference to head coach Thad Matta.
But while Oden’s much-anticipated NBA career has been derailed by injuries and Cook needed a change of address to find his modest niche, the man nicknamed “Money Mike” in his college days (an ode to the character of the same name in Friday After Next) has without question become the best pro of the group.
“I wouldn’t say it surprises me, but I didn’t expect it,” Conley answers honestly. “I didn’t expect, with all the hype around Greg, and Daequan and David Lighty—guys that, rightfully, were in the spotlight—to be the one to be having the career I’m having now.”
Conley credits his career track to a renewed mental approach to the game, ignited the summer after Hollins handed him the keys to the offense in ’10. The heady guard hired a personal sports psychologist who made leadership and responsibility a priority, according to MC. Among the exercises he was tasked with were a series of phone calls to coaches and teammates, during which he articulated exactly how he planned to become a more vocal figure for the Grizz. So far, so good.
“The last two years have been a testament to me approaching it mentally in a different way and understanding how much thought goes into basketball,” says Conley. “A lot of times, guys have the talent but they aren’t mentally strong enough to handle the game and all the things that go on during a game. That’s where I grew during the last two seasons, just from seeing a sports psychologist for one summer. I was able to come back a better leader, with more confidence and a stronger personality.”
Now, coming off a Playoff exit at the hands of Chris Paul and the Clips, Conley’s back in the lab, working out at his off-season headquarters in Columbus and readying himself for Memphis’ next run at the West. After vowing last summer to return an improved defender, Conley cashed in with a career-high 2.2 steals per game in ’11-12, second-best in the NBA. This year, besides bulking up, he’s challenged himself to shoot better from the field, to be more of a threat in the paint and to add “Steve Nash-type shots” to his repertoire. “There are so many different ways to score, and I feel like I only use a few,” says Conley.
In the rare moments when he’s not locked in the gym lifting, putting up shots or running pick-up games with ex-Buckeyes like Michael Redd and Scoonie Penn, he’s out walking Rio, his German Shepherd, or more likely, practicing his golf swing. Because when the next big moment comes—be it the Playoffs or a golf Pro-Am—Mike Conley will be prepared, no matter who else shows up.