He has reached the point now where he makes it look easy. The way he controls the pace of the floor, knowing when to attack and when to slow things down, understanding how to see the path to the basket before it is created and where to position his teammates for the best shot, it seems effortless.
Mike Conley has figured it out. Now in his seventh NBA season, the point guard is at the helm of a Memphis Grizzlies team that tied up their first round series with the Oklahoma City Thunder, 1-1, on Monday. Conley posted 19 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds while only committing two turnovers in the overtime battle.
The way he gets up and down the court seems like second nature, as if he entered the NBA with a built-in ease that instantly spilled on to the floor. The reality is, Conley’s talent is the product of years of hard work, countless hours of game film and the modesty to understand the effort needed to become a dominant player in the league.
Back on January 2, 2008, Conley was feeling on top of the world. He had just made his first NBA start and left the arena pleased with his night against the Indiana Pacers. The rookie had contributed seven points, eight assists, six rebounds and three assists in the Grizzlies’ 18-point win – what wasn’t there to feel good about after that?
Then he watched the game tape. The footage told a different story.
“I felt like I was everywhere – picking people up full court, running everywhere, diving for everything,” Conley recalled. “I looked at the film and I was like, ‘Man, I looked like a mess. I’m all over the place.’ I just had to realize the hard way that I had to do better. I thought I was much better than I was. It was humbling for sure.”
Conley entered the NBA after just one season at The Ohio State University. In spite of his high fourth pick selection, there was still work to be done getting adjusted to the league. The pace of the game was one of the biggest transitions.
He was moving way too fast. Eager to get into the offense, he rushed the flow and made poor passes. The mistakes were apparent in the replays. It was up to Conley to fix them.
He committed himself to watching film – 20 minutes before practice, 30 minutes after practice and another set of DVDs to analyze before bed. Conley had always taken school seriously and this was his new homework.
“I saw the difference between when I was playing out of control and thinking I was playing at a good speed and fast, but I was playing way too fast,” Conley said. “I’d turn the ball over, the team looked out of control. Then when I look at the good clips, when I’m playing quick but not at a fast pace, under control and I’m getting guys the ball and being successful, those things happen when you’re able to control the pace.”
It took Conley two seasons to have a “full grasp” on the pace of the NBA. Every matchup was different, and within each game was a unique set of scenarios to navigate. He broke the action down as precisely as quarter by quarter.
“Early in the first you’re playing a little bit faster than you do in the fourth, and you have to realize you can’t just go out there and take certain shots that you would in the first when it’s the fourth,” he explained.
Each contest was part of the learning process.
Conley’s confidence grew with every season that passed. He credits many in his development, including teammate-turned coach Damon Stoudamire, former assistant coach Johnny Davis, former head coach Lionel Hollins and current head coach David Joerger. The more experience he had, the easier it became for him to control the pace and see the floor clearly.
“I know if I take two dribbles this way, the defender is going to come and I already know that guy in the corner is going to be open. You kind of just have that sense and you know where people are going to be,” Conley said. “I think I’m able to anticipate certain plays and read defenses better. It allows me to have more command of the basketball, knowing where I can get my shot, knowing where I can get other people’s shots, and you can kind of think all this at the same time instead of playing so fast you can only think about one thing or maybe two at the most.”
With more time in the NBA, Conley thinks less about the time on the clock. He liked the shorter NBA shot clock better than college. It allowed him to get up and down the floor and, he noted with a smile, less time required to play defense. But there was still the impending rush with each second that passed. Now he is comfortable playing at a pace in which he can get the ball over half court with 20 seconds left so the Grizzlies can run the offense for what feels like “forever” to him. Conley can gauge the clock based on how many passes his team has made, a mental skill that has come with repetition.
“I always thought that shot clock would count down so quickly early on,” he said. “You can get the feel like, ‘We’ve made six passes in this possession, I know that shot clock is getting down.’ When you get the ball you look up and ok, I know there’s five seconds, let’s go. I’ve got to that point now.”
Before Conley begins calling plays, he is thinking steps ahead of his opponents in order to put his teammates, or himself, in the best position to score. His brain runs a mile a minute in the quick moments after the Grizzlies inbound the ball. He is averaging 11.5 assists in the first two games of the playoffs this season.
“When I’m bringing it up the floor, I’m looking for mismatches,” Conley said. “I’m looking for people out of position, whether they’re late jogging back on defense or early post position for Zach (Randolph) and Marc (Gasol). Normally they like to get down there a little early and if I can get them right away, that’s the easiest bucket for us. But then again, I’m looking to try to create seams and penetrate and try to get in those seams.”
As the Grizzlies fight to take the first round Western Conference series from the Thunder, Conley will be a key leader in the battle. He is now years beyond the rookie who was “all over the place” in his first NBA start.