Mike Conley, Everyone is Watching

During the recent NBA draft, ESPN analyst Jay Williams was presenting a segment on the difficulty  defending the great point guards of the league. Stephen Curry, the two-time reigning MVP, was left off an infographic entitled ‘Elite Point Guards’. The graphic contained Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, Isaiah Thomas, Kemba Walker, and Jeff Teague.

The omission of Curry was highly scrutinized. However, Mike Conley, point guard of the Memphis Grizzlies, was also left off the list. There was no scrutiny about Conley’s non-representation, something Conley’s dealt with his entire basketball career.

Throughout his life, Mike Conley has been overshadowed and undervalued. He has never had the spotlight on him.

Until now.

He just signed the biggest contract in NBA history, a player who has never been an All-Star or in the NBA Finals. His 5-year $153 million dollar contract made heads turn, and  while Conley might not be Chris Paul or Kyrie Irving, he’s pretty darn good, and in comparison to some of the other point guards featured on the ‘Elite Point Guards’ list, Conley is definitely on an even level.

The last three years, Conley has impressive averages of 16.1 points, 5.8 assists, 2.9 rebounds, and 1.3 steals a game. He’s  averaged a PER of 19.3 and 6.8 win shares.

2013-16 Points Assists PER Win Shares
Mike Conley 16.1 5.8 19.3 6.8
Jeff Teague 16.0 6.5 18.5 6.3
KembaWalker 18.6 5.5 18.4 6.5
Isaiah Thomas 19.6 5.6 20.8 7.8

In contrast, during that same time period  Jeff Teague put up 16 points, 6.5 assists, 2.6 rebounds, and 1.3 steals, a PER of 18.5, and 6.3 win shares.

Kemba Walker averaged 18.6 points, 5.5 assists, 4 rebounds, 1.4 steals, a PER of 18.4, and 6.5 win shares, and Isaiah Thomas was about the same.

Conley has led the Grizzlies to the third longest active playoff streak at six straight playoff appearances in the formidable, punishing Western Conference. He’s an established team leader, and one of the Grizzlies’ best players. So why is it that he’s never considered elite? Why is it that throughout the pre-free agency hype, I hardly heard a peep about Conley being on the market this summer? Why is it that he’s never in the spotlight? It all connects to Conley’s origins: the manner in which he grew up, and the manner in which he progressed as a player.

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The first time Mike Conley and Greg Oden played together, it was the summer of 2000. Oden lived an hour away from Conley’s family in Indianapolis, but he spent the entire summer in Indy to play AAU ball with twelve year old Mike. They developed a fraternal relationship.

Conley stated in his Sports Illustrated personal piece, “When I Was A Kid” that “Greg was like another brother. He fit right in with us.” This relationship translated into a successful and long-lasting basketball friendship.

While playing with one another on the Spiece Indy Heat, coached by Mike’s father, Mike Conley Sr., an Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump, they formed a dynastic team, collaborating with future NBA players Eric Gordon, Josh McRoberts, and Daequan Cook and only lost two games over four years at the highest level of the national AAU circuit. This level of dominance continued for Conley and Oden when they went to high school together at Lawrence North High School, where they won three national championships and finished with a record of 103-7.

However, throughout this sustained excellence, Conley was overshadowed by Oden’s brilliance. Oden was the freakish phenomenon and quintessential NBA prospect who wasn’t simply better than Conley – he was better than everyone.

Oden held the distinguished titles of Parade’s High School Co-Player of the Year 2005, the 2005 National Boys Basketball Player of the Year, the 2006 Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year, 2006 Indiana Mr. Basketball, a McDonald’s All-American, and the undisputed #1 high school prospect of his year.

So while Conley was brilliant in his own right, placing second in 2006 Indiana’s Mr. Basketball, and being an All-American himself, he was always playing second to Oden. The spotlight was always on Oden, not Conley. This was true even after high school.

Both enrolled at Ohio State University, and both excelled.

Conley led the Big 10 in assists and was named All-Big Ten First Team, while Ohio State won the Big 10 conference and advanced all the way to the national championship game. Once again, Conley was overshadowed by Oden who was selected to the Associated Press All-American team, the first freshman to do so since 1990.

When the NBA draft rolled around, Conley was taken at #4 by the Grizzlies, but he wasn’t even the highest drafted Buckeye: Oden was the #1 overall pick, chosen by the Portland Trail Blazers.

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In the NBA, despite putting up stellar performances, Conley has been overshadowed. Playing with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, he is the second or third wheel of the Memphis franchise. It has kept him out of the superstar conversation.

Surrounded by extraordinary players has deprived Conley of being rightly recognized, and in effect, he’s often been undervalued.

After signing a five-year $45 million contract extension with the Grizzlies in November of 2010, Conley received a highly negative reaction. Grizzlies fans thought Conley was grossly overpaid for a player that hadn’t lived up to the #4 pick status. This motivated Conley on the court to prove doubters wrong, and even probed him to say:

“I saved a few of those [articles]…I remember how some fans treated me. I remember how people reacted on the Internet. That was a tough time for me. But I used it. That stuff drove me, and it still drives me today.”

But now things have changed. By signing such a massive contract, Conley is implying he is on the same level as Steph Curry and LeBron James. He will be expected to produce.

When examining Conley on the court, one cannot help but see the skill in Conley’s management and facilitation abilities. Conley is the conductor of the Grizzlies’ offense and he runs it all by himself. He is the ultimate team-first player, a point guard that doesn’t just play  different physically, but also mentally.

Conley was recently quoted as saying:

“It’s almost like you have a clock in your head. I have a clock in my head for Zach. For Marc. For Courtney [Lee]. For anybody on the court. There’s guys that don’t need to play with the ball. Tony Allen doesn’t need to have the ball to be effective. I say, ‘Zach needs to get the ball. He’s working very hard on the defensive end and on the offensive end.’ And I can feel four minutes go by, Zach hasn’t had the ball and I can see it. He’s starting to get a little antsy. OK, now it’s time to bang it in to him four straight trips to see if he can get something going.”

That’s the type of attitude that is not appreciated enough. Conley has accepted his role as a non-scoring star and an essential game facilitator with large responsibilities, who is not always the primary option.

Conley’s role isn’t to carry his team by taking difficult, near-impossible shots. It is to help his teammates make easy ones. This is his greatest strength.

The only thing holding Conley back is injury. This past season, Conley missed 26 games due to injury.

Staying in Memphis with the intention to build a championship contender over the long haul, Mike Conley can still continue his brilliance, and prove his value. But no longer is he out of the spotlight, in the shadows, an afterthought.  Everything he does now will be dissected and judged and analyzed, held up to a superstar standard because he is making superstar money.

The Mike Conley world has suddenly changed.