MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) Mike Conley found the perfect way to answer all the questions about the Memphis Grizzlies giving an injury-prone point guard with no All-Star appearances a five-year, $153 million contract last summer.
He had the best season of his career.
”I knew people would be waiting for me to fail, and saying their opinion was right,” Conley said. ”I knew that was out there, but at the same time, I was only worried about the good that has come out of it.”
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The 6-foot-1 point guard usually goes unmentioned when the discussion turns to the NBA’s best players. With Conley’s history of injuries ranging from ankles to Achilles and even facial injuries in the 2015 playoffs , the contract just seemed way too much to pay to anyone outside of Memphis even if the guard has been a key piece of the longest playoff run in Grizzlies’ history.
Conley has provided Memphis fans – and ownership – quite a return on the team’s investment:
– Ten of his 15 career 30-point games have come this season.
– Scored a career-high 38 points against Phoenix in January.
– Averaging 20.6 pts a game. That’s seven points higher than his career average, while also averaging a career-best shooting percentage outside the arc (40.7 percent) and at the free throw line (86.1 percent).
– Became the career scoring leader for the Grizzlies, and also has made more 3-pointers than anyone else in franchise history.
– Joined LeBron James, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook as the only players with at least 10,000 career points, 4,000 career assists and 1,000 career steals since entering the NBA in 2007-08.
”He’s been playing phenomenal,” Grizzlies guard Tony Allen said. ”He’s one of the top five point guards in the league. He’s definitely an All-NBA caliber kind of guy. He’s been showing that.”
Coaches and other players around the league often talk about how Conley is underappreciated for what he brings to the Grizzlies. After a 110-97 win over Indiana a couple of weeks ago, Pacers forward Paul George talked about Conley’s 36 points – including seven 3s, six assists, four steals and only one turnover.
”We allowed him to kind of orchestrate the whole offense, and he got comfortable early,” George said. ”He’s a flame thrower. Once he gets hot, it’s over.”
It’s why Conley has nicknames from Captain Clutch to the Conductor – the last from a video the Grizzlies put together featuring minority owner Justin Timberlake and directed by Craig Brewer to ensure Conley re-signed with Memphis last summer.
Then first-year coach David Fizdale asked even more of Conley starting with having the guard coach a quarter in a preseason game. The switch in roles wasn’t a stunt or a lark. Fizdale wanted Conley to understand the role the coach wanted from him as a leader along with running the team.
”He’s really tried to embrace that for me and take his aggressiveness up another level,” Fizdale said. ”He is truly the glue to this whole thing connecting everyone, and he does it without an ego.”
Injuries continue to be an issue for the 175-pound guard, yet he keeps coming back faster than anyone expects. Conley was back in three weeks after breaking vertebrae in his lower back in late-November , an injury expected to keep him out six weeks. He needed 13 stitches over his right eye after butting heads with Kawhi Leonard on April 4, which kept him out of one game only because he couldn’t see out of the swollen eye.
Conley said his thought process returning from injury is simple. If he can play, he’ll play. And he missed only the one game after cutting his eye to send a message of the urgency the Grizzlies need going into the postseason. Memphis has earned the No. 7 seed and will play the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the opening round.
Conley feels like he is ready.
The 29-year-old guard said, ”I’m better for having had the pressure of the contract and having the opportunity and the responsibility to lead this team.”