Becoming More Assertive

Ronald Tillery
The Commercial Appeal

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Mike Conley hears the whispers.

There is an audible segment of the Grizzlies’ fan base still doubting his ability to run the club.

The third-year point guard is critiqued by family members, and his coaches are no longer enablers to Conley’s laid-back approach.

“He has to be his own worst critic to get better,” Griz assistant coach Damon Stoudamire said. “Mike can’t be satisfied with playing cool.”

The Griz are about to enter a regular season with their most talented roster since the start of the 2007 campaign. That also happens to be the same year Conley was selected fourth overall in the NBA draft.

The organization seemed somewhat content with bringing Conley – a 19-year-old out of Ohio State – along slowly at that time. But since coach Lionel Hollins ‘ arrival, the demand for Conley to emerge as a forceful leader on the court has intensified.

No kid gloves this season.

Conley has received a strong message. The coaching staff is demanding he be more assertive and in charge of a group that features strong personalities and offensive wills.

Under Hollins, Conley already proved he is a credible NBA point guard. The pressure this season is for Conley to build on his personal gains and prove his position isn’t in need of an upgrade.

“I don’t want to be the weak link,” Conley said. “You want to be a key part of why a team is winning. It forces me to look at the game differently. I’ve got to be a force so that guys can’t sag off me or take me for granted.

“I know people may have given up and lost interest in me, but I use all of that as motivation. The people who doubt me, I try to go out and prove them wrong. I know I can help make this team better. I’m at the point now where I feel like people are going to realize that I belong in this league.”

Conley’s steady preseason backs up his claim. He has averaged 10.3 points on 51 percent shooting (38 percent from 3-point range) with 4.5 assists and 2.3 turnovers.

There is no doubt that Hollins trusts Conley to run the team in terms of playing under control. Conley is being challenged to know when to shift into a different gear even if it means playing with a different character.

“I told him go and play fast this summer. Every time you play a pick-up game, play fast,” Hollins said. “I want him to be more creative and aggressive trying to beat his guy. I don’t want one guy stopping him from making a play.

“He’s my guy. He’s proven that he’s an NBA point guard. He just has to continue to get better and work on his game in all facets. I just want him to be a leader. The trust is still there.”

What is maddening about Conley to the coaching staff is that he doesn’t always use his physical gifts. He’s quick, fast and skilled enough to bedazzle defenses, but Conley often seems content with playing it safe.

“I see what they mean. Having command is being in control of the pace of the game,” Conley said. “My cousin tells me I shoot too many (3-pointers). This summer I got stronger so I could come back in more of an attack mode so I can get to the rim a lot more. I know I can hit the 3. But I want to get in the paint, shoot some floaters and get to the rim.

“I don’t feel like I have to change my personality. I can lead more by example. I don’t need to yell and hype everybody up.”

Stoudamire agrees when it comes to Conley’s psychological approach. But as someone who wasn’t all that vocal when he played, Stoudamire said Conley has to embrace a requirement of every point guard.

And that’s to show people who is in control with the basketball.

“There are going to be times when Rudy (Gay) is asking for the ball, Zach (Randolph) is asking for the ball and O.J. (Mayo) is asking for the ball,” Stoudamire said. “Who are you going to give it to? Are you going to give it to the guy who has been cussing you out the whole game or the guy who has been open and will help you win the game? That’s what I mean by having command of this team.”

The question is whether Conley’s just too nice and into pleasing everyone.

“He’s a nice guy for sure,” Stoudamire said. “I just don’t think he’s a vocal guy by nature; that’s why I tell him to lead by example and he can do it. I wasn’t a loud guy on the floor. But when I had the ball in my hand, I had command. We can go to different places if he takes command.”

Tip-in: The Griz waived free-agent guard Mike Taylor, cutting their roster to 15 players. Taylor, a 6-2 point guard, averaged two points and 2.3 assists in 8.3 minutes during six preseason games. The 23-year-old was a rookie with the Los Angeles Clippers last season. Taylor was one of three players in training camp with a non-guaranteed contract. Forward Trey Gilder remains on the roster, but his job security hasn’t been decided because Griz brass is unsure whether the team will take 15 players into the regular season.