Mike Conley, Jr. is one of the more underrated and unappreciated athletes in sports. The NBA point guard for the Memphis Grizzlies has been quietly putting together a great career since being drafted fourth overall in the 2007 NBA Draft.
After a slow start to his career, Conley was thought to be almost a draft bust, just an average player. However, his play started to become better, and as the team got better, Conley evolved into an all star caliber point guard. When the team had been contemplating going out and getting the next great point guard to build their franchise around, it turned out that player was there all along. After being unrecognized and not a relatively known player to NBA fans, he has recently discovered what it’s like to be swarmed for autographs, or have someone yell out his name.
In an exclusive interview with Scoop Jackson, Conley described what it’s like to finally be acknowledged.
“It’s different,” says Conley when asked about what it is like to become a household name. “I guess you can say it’s kind of become normal, but I love it. I embrace it. I enjoy the fans recognizing me. It’s starting to happen a lot, especially since we are winning a little bit more. A little more TV time, a little more notoriety, stuff like that, it really helps. I’ve been given plenty of opportunities and been blessed to have the kind of family that I have to give me the mindset to never stop working. There were times in my career where I could have easily been traded, easily been given up on, and I think me making strides, me making a commitment to myself to come in and get better showed people what I could do each year. From there, people started to believe in me, and the organization believed in me, and once that happened, it was on me to take this thing on.”
“I think it is always having faith,” he says when asked how he got this far. “I never got shook. I always had faith that I’d be a good player. I always had faith that I’d be something in this league. I just knew that regardless of what people were saying about me and what’s going on when I was signing contracts and different things like that. I’m just using everything for motivation and then try to use it to my advantage.”
“I was battling with time. You know, when I came into the league I was battling with being a buck-seventy and I hadn’t grown or matured, I hadn’t gotten stronger and a bunch of areas in my game I needed to get better at and people were quick to judge — especially in the NBA, where it is a “What can you do for me now?” league. They want to see their dividends paid off right away. For me, though, it was like I had to take time. I took a different course. It’s not something many players take nowadays.”
When asked about the toughest parts of his career, Conley went on to talk about the trade of Rudy Gay and the firing of Lionel Hollins.
“Well, to be honest, it was tough, first off. It was tough to see Lionel go. He was like a second father figure almost for me. But at the same time, when it was done, it was done. We couldn’t take it back; his firing happened. Dave Joerger is our coach, and the only way for us to continue to get better is to jump over to Joerger’s ship and say, “Hey, we’re with you. We’re behind you 100 percent” and try not to forget about Lionel, never forget about him, but use what he taught us and apply it to what Joerger is teaching us going forward and keep this thing moving.”
In a recent article from Hoops Habit, author Aaron Mah writes about Conley’s presence and importance to the team this past season.
“Going into the postseason, there were legitimate concerns surrounding the Memphis Grizzlies and their horrible end to the 2014-15 season. After taking the Oklahoma City Thunder to seven games in a thrilling first-round series last year — before falling to OKC at the Chesapeake Arena during the seventh and deciding contest — Memphis charged into this season looking to earn home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
“In fact, going into the All-Star break, the Grizzlies were sitting pretty at 39-14 — good for the second-best record in the Western Conference. Moreover, they were flirting with the accomplishment of finishing the season within the top 100 in, both offensive (11th in the league) and defensive efficiency (seventh in the league), per NBA.com. But since the trade deadline, it has been a struggle for Memphis, clawing their way to finish line with a 16-13 record over their last 29 contests. During the stretch, their offensive rating plummeted by nearly four points per 100 possessions, down to 100.2, which ranked a regressive 22nd in the association.
“When analyzing their downfall, one correlation becomes abundantly clear: when Mike Conley is playing his best ball, the Grizzlies are usually playing their best ball. Prior to the All-Star break, Conley averaged a highly-respectable 16.9 points and 5.3 assists per game on 56.8 percent TS% (true shooting percentage) and an individual offensive rating of 110. However, Conley would suffer a wrist injury in mid-January, and a nagging right foot sprain in early March thereafter, which derailed his — and Memphis’ — season down the stretch. Explicitly, after their elongated break, Conley’s scoring dropped to 13.4 points per game and scored at a banal 53.2 percent TS% and an individual offensive rating of just 104. Consequently, the Grizzlies had to limp into the playoffs as the fifth seed — but did possess the better record and home-court advantage over the Northwest Division champions, the Portland Trail Blazers. Since the start of the series, though, Conley has been a reinvigorated man; playing courageously through his sore foot, and spearheading Memphis’ dismantling of Rip City. Even with both Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol shooting horrendously from the field, the Grizzlies were still able to earn a commanding 3-0 lead. But disaster struck once again during game 3 when Conley suffered multiple facial fractures due to an inadvertent elbow.”
Mike Conley has definitely become a key player for the Grizzlies. Strangely, his play goes unnoticed to the general public. He could be argued as one of the most underrated players in the NBA.
In iSportsWeb’s list of the top 10 point guards of the 2014-15 NBA season, Mike Conley was ranked number eight.
“He’s the most underrated point guard in the league. He’s not flashy and Memphis doesn’t get many nationally televised games, but he does everything you ask of a point guard and more. A scrappy defender and a much improved scorer, Conley led the Grizzlies to the fourth seed in a conference that’s as tough as it’s ever been. Surrounded by elite company such as Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo, and Eric Bledsoe, Conley has been keeping up with them and showing why he deserves to be in the same conversation. Averaging 15.8 PPG, 5.4 APG, 3.0 RPG, and 1.3 SPG on the season, Conley and the Griz met Stephen Curry and the number one seed Golden State Warriors in the Western Semis. Fighting through facial fractures, Conley was not able to operate at 100% health for the series as they fell to the Warriors in 5 games. The silver lining is that the Grizzlies will always be contenders to make a deep playoff run every single year.”
Before the draft in 2007, Conley was also running under the radar. In his pre-draft prospect profile from NBA.com, they listed many weaknesses: “Conley appears mature enough with only one year of college experience to man the NBA’s most difficult position. However, to keep defenses honest and open up opportunities to penetrate, Conley must become a more consistent shooter. He also has a tendency to defer to teammates too often (although he took over when necessary during the NCAA tournament) so he must remember to look for his own shots as well.”
An article by Uproxx suggests that Conley is in fact, underrated and underappreciated.
“Let’s play a game. On the count of three, name the five best point guards in the NBA.1…2…3…go! I’m sure the likes of Chris Paul, Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook came to mind. Other names you may thought of are Tony Parker, John Wall, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, and even Damian Lillard. But a player whose name likely didn’t rise up from the depths is Mike Conley, which has been an ongoing issue for the Grizzlies point guard.
“The Grizzlies current have the second best record in the league with 17 wins and only four losses, and a big reason for that has been the stellar play of their seventh year point guard. It certainly helps to have one of, if not the best, front—court duo in the NBA, but Mike Conley is the engine that makes this Grizzlies team go.
“Back in the day, the point guard position was made for players who valued setting up their teammates more than scoring themselves. That’s changed in the last decade, and a good number of the top floor generals have a score-first mentality. That change in philosophy has led to the change of perspective from fans. The best point guards are judged on their stat line more than their overall impact on the game, which is the main reason why Conley gets lost in conversations about the NBA’s best at the one-spot.”
The Uproxx article then says of Conley’s stats:
“Conley’s stats don’t jump off the page like Russell Westbrook’s. This season, through 21 games, he’s averaging 16.9 points, 6.1 assists, 2.8 rebounds, and 1.2 steals in 32.2 minutes per game while shooting over 47 percent from the field. That’s solid but nothing to turn doubters into believers. What a large majority of people fail to realize is that Conley is capable of putting up bigger numbers, but the style of play instituted by former coach Lionel Hollins and carried over into the Dave Joergen era won’t allow it. The Grizzlies are one of the slowest teams in the NBA. Memphis ranks 27th in the NBA in pace with an average of 94.8 possessions per 48 minutes.
“That equates to fewer shot and assist opportunities for Conley. It also negates a good amount of fast-break openings, which is where some of the best point guard’s in the NBA make their living. Westbrook, Rose, Wall, and a healthy number of other top guards in the Association rack up an easy bucket or two and a few assists in the open court on a nightly basis. Take those opportunities away and you’d see stat lines that look a lot more similar to Conley’s.
“The former Ohio State point guard may not be an offensive juggernaut, but he’s crafty enough with the ball to break down defenders and get into the lane. He has a nice mid-range arsenal full of floaters and runners once he gets into the lane, but he’s at his best when he draws a second defender then dumps it down to the open big for an uncontested dunk. He uses his quick first step to blow by his defender off ball screens and get to his spots. Defenses have to keep Conley in their sight at all times as he’s a knock-down shooter from deep. He ranks 11th in the NBA in three-point percentage, shooting just below 44 percent from downtown. Of all NBA point guards who have played in at least 10 games this year and average 25 or more minutes, Conley’s 21.2 player efficiency rating is No. 7.”
The truth is, many people wonder what happened to Mike Conley. They may say, “Hey, remember that Ohio State point guard who played with Greg Oden? I never hear anything about him these days.” The ironic thing is, Oden, who is widely considered one of the biggest draft busts of all time, seems to get talked about more than Conley. You always hear about him attempting a comeback, while Conley is quietly leading his Grizzlies to the playoffs.
While Conley is considered by many as underrated, his father thinks that he needs to get rid of that tag, as he said in a recent interview with Grantlands.
“You can’t find a spot where he didn’t make a difference to help a team be the best in the country,” Conley Sr. said, referring to the success his son has achieved at the different levels of his career. “That part never gets talked about. If another player has that resume, that would be all they would talk about: ‘He’s a winner.’ And that’s what Michael is.
“The big thing for me and Mike right now is getting rid of the ‘underrated’ tag and calling him what he is — one of the top point guards in the country,” Conley Sr. said. “I think it’s unfair that in order for him to get that tag off, he has to win a championship. Well, who has to get a championship to be considered one of the better players? You look at his playoff record and what he’s done against some of the best guards in the league, and that speaks volumes right there.”
Later in the same article, Mike Conley Jr. goes on to talk about his and his team’s mentality, and shows how selfless he is and how him flying under the radar doesn’t even cross his mind.
“For some guys, they just walk into this league and it’s easy,” Conley said. “They go to a big market. They get the attention. They get all the help. For us in Memphis, we’ve had to work so hard just to scratch the surface, just to get a little bit of attention. That’s something I don’t take for granted.
“This team has handled adversity well,” Conley continued. “We’re mentally tough. I don’t think people understand it. Like Zach says all the time, ‘We’ve got it out the mud.’ We started at the bottom. We’ve built this thing. There wasn’t a lot of money involved. There wasn’t the signing of free agents and putting the team together. We just drafted guys. We traded for a few and said, ‘We’ve got to do this ourselves.’ So we take a certain pride in this team, in knowing how hard it was to get to where we’re at. We’re never satisfied.”
While Conley is gaining recognition, he still isn’t receiving as much as someone who played for a team in a larger market, like Los Angeles or New York, would. He doesn’t need recognition, however. He plays for his team and for his fans, and that is exactly what you would want from your star point guard. Even if it wasn’t widely known the he was, in fact, a star.