So Much Better


Originally published in SLAM 175

by Aggrey Sam / @CSNBullsInsider

The first time I spoke with Mike Conley Jr alone, I apologized to him.

“I’m not gonna lie,” I told the point guard during a quiet moment at the FedEx Forum in Memphis. “I didn’t think you’d be this good. My bad, man.”

I confessed that I thought Kyle Lowry deserved the Grizzlies’ starting PG job back when the two youngsters battled for the role early in their careers, and that I felt Greivis Vasquez’s success made Conley’s long-term contract extension—at the time questioned by many observers—unjustified.

Conley, one of the real gentlemen in the League, graciously accepted my words, laughing it off and admitting that he’d heard worse. He heard it when Memphis made him the No. 4 overall selection in the 2007 Draft. He heard it at Ohio State, when he was better known as Greg Oden’s sidekick. He heard it as Oden’s unheralded teammate at Indianapolis (IN) Lawrence North. And he heard it as the son of the former Olympic track star-turned-agent of the same name.

By now though, with Conley averaging 17.6 points, 6.3 assists and 1.6 steals per game, Memphis’ on-court leader feels he has more than earned the respect of his teammates.

“Like I always say, he done built his name from crumbs to bricks,” says Tony Allen, Conley’s inimitable partner in the Grizz backcourt. “He’s one of those guys who got better every year, at least while I’ve been around him, and by him just going up and battling with the best point guards and competing night in and night out with the numbers he put up.

“I salute Mike,” continues TA, who now symbolizes Memphis as much as rappers Juicy J and Yo Gotti, despite being a West Side Chicagoan through and through. “That’s my brother.”

The mild-mannered Conley might seem like the polar opposite of the boisterous Allen, but the floor general’s leadership, continual improvement and evolution into one of the NBA’s best point guards has allowed him to run a squad that includes the likes of the shooting guard and equally outspoken veteran All-Star power forward Zach Randolph. Getting two tough customers such as TA and ZBo to believe in your abilities, especially when it seemed like you were handed the reins prematurely, doesn’t seem like it would be an easy task. Conley insists though that his affable nature belies his fierce competitiveness and a blue-collar approach that matches the perception of his fellow Grizzlies.

“I think I’m able to be one person on and another off the court,” the Naptown native explains. “I’m quiet off the court. On the court, I can start talking and be louder, but I think a lot of it is more lead by example. I just go out there and work, and try to get guys to follow the way I play.

“It’s weird, man. I’m nice, but I’m just as tough as the rest of them—Tony Allen, Zach,” he insists. “We’ve all got a tough side to us. They’re a little bit more outgoing with it, but I’m just as tough, just as physical and I think that’s where we get that stereotype from.”

Former Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins seconds Conley’s view that being soft-spoken doesn’t preclude a PG from being able to lead. Non-historians of the game might be surprised to know that contrary to Hollins’ fiery sideline persona, as a young player, while he was passionate as a guard on Portland’s Bill Walton-led title team, he had to grow into locker room voice. “Quiet has nothing to do with it. It’s in here,” the coach says, pointing at his heart. “He’s a tough competitor, but being quiet has nothing to do with it.

“You just made that comment, but I know a lot of guys—including myself when I played—and people would say, ‘I didn’t know that was you when I saw you play. You don’t seem like the same person.’ I’m not the same person,” Hollins says. “I’m not competing against you. I’m just talking to you. But when I competed, it’s a whole different story and that’s the way Mike is. You have to be what you need to be to be successful and then, you back off and you enjoy life.”

The yin and yang of on- and off-court personas is the lasting message from Hollins that Conley will carry with him for the rest of his career.

“[Hollins] helped me, just in the sense of always being aggressive. He’s an aggressive guy, assertive, very physical, hands-on and kind of gave me a different attitude toward the game,” Conley says. “Not always being so nice and quiet, but having a different edge to you sometimes.”

But let’s rewind for a second. If it isn’t obvious, the bulk of these quotes came from last season, specifically Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals in Memphis. That evening’s loss to San Antonio, completing the Spurs’ four-game series sweep, was the end of the Grizzlies’ season, the most successful in franchise history, as well as Hollins’ final game as the team’s coach.

There’s no need to rehash the whys and hows of Hollins’ exit, but the fact that the coach oversaw Conley’s development from a second-year former one-and-done Lottery pick with a shaky J to a complete, two-way guard of a conference finalist gives him the credibility to speak on not only Conley’s growth—after Hollins’ first full season in Memphis, the Grizzlies bestowed a five-year, $40-million contract on the youngster—but also his future.

“When you come in at 19, you put all the miles on you. It doesn’t matter how young you are, the miles catch up. But he’s got room to grow, I’m sure, and what—I can’t speak on it right now—but he’s grown a lot,” Hollins cryptically critiques. “I think more of his growth will be refining his skill level as he goes on and also, understanding mentally, how to take charge, how to direct and when to do what.”

The fact that Hollins and Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace believed in him when he hadn’t proven anything and the team hadn’t won anything isn’t lost on the 26-year-old. 

Says Conley: “It means a lot that they stuck with me and gave me an opportunity, gave me a chance to basically show that I can play. They gave me that opportunity, and I just didn’t want to abuse it. I wanted to use it to the best of my ability and embrace it, and I thought that’s what kept me here and kept me around. It was a long journey, man, and it’s so gratifying to see where we came from and how far we’ve come.”

Randolph, Allen and burly, bearded All-Star center Marc Gasol, the reigning DPOY, might be the faces of the “Grit ‘n’ Grind” era, but Conley’s year-by-year improvement doesn’t go unnoticed. 

“He’s a crafty guy, getting in the lane, getting guys open. I’ve really got to watch his penetration,” Derrick Rose said before the season. “Really stay in front of him, make him shoot, if anything, and just try to contest all his shots because he’s real good.”

That “make him shoot” strategy, while more effective a few seasons ago, isn’t the best plan of action anymore, given Conley’s career 37.3 percent mark from deep and his newfound willingness to score, as evidenced by the career-high he set last season (14.6 ppg)—a mark he’s blowing past like a slower defender now.

“I think that really happened this season, understanding that if we were going to win, I needed to score and I was never really used to taking a lot of shots, not used to doing that and I think this season, it became normal to me to be able to shoot a lot and still be a pass-first kind of guy,” Conley says. “I felt like that about a year ago, even more so going into this season—even before Rudy [Gay] was traded—and I think after that happened, it just opened up for me to do a little bit more.”

The first defining move of the new Grizzlies leadership—owner Robert Pera, CEO Jason Levien and a front office that includes former ESPN writer John Hollinger, a major proponent of basketball analytics—is speculated to have eventually led to Hollins’ ouster, but more importantly, it revealed the direction of the organization, which is clearly being built around the talents of Gasol and Conley.

Gasol, given his size and unique skill set for a center, seems obvious, but unless you watch closely, it’s hard to fully value the totality of what Conley brings to the table. Since his ball-on-a-string handle and inherited-from-a-track-star quickness aren’t often used for anything flashy, and his credentials as a distributor and defender seem to go under the radar in today’s PG-oriented NBA, MC’s game doesn’t stand out to the casual observer, even as he quietly earns respect.

Not that winning accolades drive him, but despite his low-key nature, Conley, who participated in USA Basketball’s Select Team minicamp over the summer, wouldn’t mind further recognition, specifically making the All-Star team, to back up his team’s success and individual achievement.

“Winning has a big part,” says Conley. “But I think being consistent from Day 1 of the season and playing at that All-Star level for a full 82-game season—not for 60 games, not for 50 games—but the whole time and leading up into the Playoffs, and obviously doing when it’s needed most is in the Playoffs, where everybody can see.”

If that occurs, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a few more apologists join me in coming out of the woodwork.

Aggrey Sam covers the Chicago Bulls for Comcast SportsNet Chicago.