Game Recognize Game: Spotlighting Utah Jazz Point Guard Mike Conley Jr. How Old-School Skills Can Still Impact In A New-Era Of Basketball.
The 6'5+ point guard is nothing knew in the NBA.
One of the best to ever play the position, Earvin “Magic” Johnson headlines this group of point guards and is regarded as the most successful accomplishing 5 NBA championships and currently is 5th all-time in assists with 10,141. Magic Johnson played in the 1980’s running one of the most prolific offenses for the Los Angeles Lakers, becoming known as the “Showtime Lakers”, the best show in prime-time sports.
Before Magic, there was “Pistol” Pete Maravich who played in the NBA during the 70’s. He was 6'5 in stature and averaged 24 ppg for his career. But his trademark flare for passing the basketball dazzled fans and left his legacy as one of the first two-guards in the NBA. Positioned as a shooting guard, Maravich’s skillset resembles that of a point guard in today’s NBA. He was a transcendent player during his playing career, a style of play way ahead of his time.
Before Pistol Pete, there was the “Big O” Oscar Robertson who played in the NBA during the 60’s. Only recently has the term ‘point forward’ been coined in basketball history but without a doubt Robertson was the greatest player to fit the role. Listed at 6'5 in height, Robertson became the first ever player to average a triple-double for the Cincinnati Royals in the 1961–62 season. He is only 1 of 2 players to ever accomplish that feat; Russell Westbrook being the other player to average a triple-double in his MVP season in 2017.
This flashback in basketball history leads me to my point (no pun intended). The modern NBA is filled with athletes that fit this skillset of your bigger, cerebral basketball player. The NBA players starring in the league are identified with this kind of style of play.
Most recently, you have Luka Doncic for the Dallas Mavericks. At the age of 22 he is already a 2-time all-star. Recently, he has been compared to the likes of Larry Bird aka “Larry Legend” with his moxie for the game and shooting prowess. But let’s take it a step further. This 6'8 Slovenian point guard is a mix of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Doncic is next in line as one of the greats, but he will be doing it in a majority field of 6'5+ players who carry this skillset in today’s day and age of professional basketball.
LeBron “King” James is the prototype of this style of player. The impact LeBron James has had in the NBA is second to none with his career ave. of 27 ppg. 7.5 rpg. & 7.4 apg. Then in no particular order, this season alone you have James Harden (25.2/7.7/11), Lamelo Ball (15.7/6.0/6.4), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (23.2/5.3/6.3), Giannis Antetokounmpo (29.2/11.8/5.9), Ben Simmons (16.0/8.0/7.7), Paul George (23.4/6.2/5.5), Zach Lavine (28.5/5.3/5.0), Jimmy Butler (20.1/7.8/7.8), and Draymond Green (5.7/6.0/8.5).
This list of players are all over 6'5 in height and look to impact the game in other ways than just scoring. The hybrid style of play is an extension of players in the past who proved that the game has evolved into a more complete basketball player. All whom you trust with the ball in their hands. Now a days, the goal is to get your NBA 2k rating up. All while having the physical attributes that defy your position on the court.
During my AAU travel team days when I was a scrawny 8th grader back in middle school, I saw Mike Conley Jr. play at the national invitational in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He and teammates Greg Oden & Daequan Cook headlined the tournament at Spiece Fieldhouse. Greg Oden at the time was the National Player of the Year and Mr. Basketball of the state of Indiana (which Conley Jr. finished 2nd). By this time, all 3 players had committed to the Ohio State University basketball program to play under Thad Matta, and the rest would be history. But first, they would team up and showcase their talents together at this national tournament.
The arena was packed with fans for every game they would play. They did not disappoint either, winning the championship and giving us a first glimpse of what they would play like at Ohio State. Fast forward to this trio’s freshman year at OSU, as a team they finished ranked #1 in the AP polls with a 35–4 record going 15–1 in conference play. In the NCAA March Madness tournament, they would defeat Georgetown University in the Final Four before losing to Billy Donovan’s University of Florida Gators in the National Championship game.
As freshmen, Mike Conley Jr., Greg Oden, and Daequan Cook were equally or even more talented than that Florida Gators team. But the experience of the reigning champion Gators (now winning back to back national titles) proved that junior year players Taurean Green, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, & Joakim Noah had a bit more chemistry with each other than that Ohio State team did. Florida won the game by a score of 84–75.
That national title game in 2007 would become one of the best collegiate games in NCAA men’s basketball history. Every player mentioned here that participated in the national title game in 2007, including Florida freshman Marreese Speights, were eventually drafted into the NBA. In the 2007 NBA draft, Portland selected Greg Oden as the 1st overall pick. Al Horford went 3rd to the Atlanta Hawks, then Mike Conley Jr. went 4th to the Memphis Grizzlies. Corey Brewer followed at #7 to the Minnesota Timberwolves and Joakim Noah next at #10 to the Chicago Bulls. Daequan Cook was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers with the 21st overall pick but the trade rights went to the Miami Heat and Taurean Green was selected in the second round to the Portland Trailblazers with the 52nd overall pick.
The amount of talent displayed in that national title game went on to prove what I had first witnessed in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Mike Conley Jr., standing at 6'1 175 lbs., was amongst the best players, if not the best player of his era.
There was one other team from Florida that went on to play at the national tournament in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Representing northern Florida and our capitol city, the Tallahassee Running Rattlers were twice as deep as our team from Miami, and we so happened to stay in the same hotel as them in Indiana. What are the odds. We would run into each other at a few tournaments back home in Florida and everyone knew the Running Rattlers to be one of the best AAU teams in all of the state. I’ll be completely honest, I do not recall by memory when we played the Running Rattlers but if we did, I am sure they were one of the teams that beat us by 20 points or more.
They were just that much more faster than us.
I am not talking about from baseline to baseline faster than us. I am talking about full-court press and no time for rest faster than us.
Here is the worst part. We were all teenagers and we would all get tired throughout the game. It didn't matter which team you were playing for. That kind of gameplay, even if both teams are well-conditioned, will eventually wear out any player. But the Running Rattlers were the type of team that when they got tired, they would sub in a whole new 5 players to run that same style of play.
As for us, the Kendall Hammocks Warriors, we didn’t even have 5 players on the bench to sub in a whole new group. But that didn't matter and so as it stands, we both were representing Florida in the heart of Indiana; and we couldn’t get away from each other even if we wanted to.
Thankfully, we did not have to play the Running Rattlers in the Spiece Fieldhouse. We played teams from North Carolina, Georgia, Michigan, and of course Indiana. We faired well and competed against a majority of teams willing to sacrifice all they got onto the court. No different than the competition we faced in Florida; except we weren’t in Florida anymore. These guys were stiff, husky, athletic, and can put the ball in the hoops with their eyes closed. They dedicated themselves to the game of basketball as much as we did back home in Miami.
Now, when we would run into the Tallahassee Running Rattlers, they looked all too familiar than they did back in Florida. It felt like back in school when the teacher would assign a group project. All of a sudden, your classmate from across the room is having lunch with you after school, at your house working on slideshows to present on Microsoft Powerpoint. We no longer felt like competitors. We were in this together. Trying to make sure we don’t embarrass the hell out of Florida Basketball.
Even if we didn't win the tournament, which was the ultimate goal in a field of what seemed like 50 teams or more, we got to bond with the Running Rattlers of Tallahassee. We’d share stories of how our tournament play was turning out, what each team would be doing on our free-time while in Indiana, and if we wanted to hit the swimming pool sometime throughout the day. On our last nite, we pulled an all-nighter (well atleast well beyond curfew) and really got to know each other. Trust me, we were so different but so alike at the same time. Even if on the court they were better than us in the style of basketball being played, when it came to showing out for the names in front of our jerseys, we did that together even if we did not play for the same team.
A decade and some change later, Mike Conley Jr. is in the prime of his career. He isn’t the best player in the NBA, but he is averaging 19.6 ppg. and over 6 apg. Greg Oden and Daequan Cook are both out of the league after having disparaging NBA careers (they weren’t horrible but they didn’t live out their potential. Greg Oden. Maybe Greg Oden was horrible). The only other players in the league from the 2007 national title game at this point are all big men from the Florida Gators. Joakim Noah 6'11, Al Horford 6'10, and lone freshman on that team Speights 6'10 (drafted 16th overall in 2008) are all a shell of themselves and their greatest playing days are in the past.
As for Conley Jr., he is still 6'1, 175 lbs. He plays and starts for a perennial playoff-contending team in the Memphis Grizzlies, the team that originally drafted him. Conley Jr. and the Grizzlies just could never get past the big-3 of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs.
It must have been déjà vu for Mike. All too familiar.
He was part of an original big-3 back as an Ohio State Buckeye. During that college run, Greg Oden was as dominant as Tim Duncan, Daequan Cook was as athletic, shifty and a great 3-point shooter like Manu Ginobili. (Daequan Cook did the between-the-legs dunk in the Spiece Fieldhouse dunk contest). Mike Conley Jr. and Tony Parker ran the show for their respective teams.
Tony Parker’s NBA career average was 15.5 ppg. & 5.6 apg.
Mike Conley Jr.’s NBA career average is 14.9 ppg. & 5.7 apg.
At his best, Mike Conley Jr. took the gritty, defensive-minded Grizzlies to the Western Conference Finals where he lost to the daunting San Antonio Spurs in 2013. The Grizzlies were dominant in the front-court with 2-time all-star Zach Randolph and 3-time all-star Marc Gasol. Mike Conley Jr. has never been an all-star. But his game goes far beyond his stats. Mike Conley is well-regarded for the contract he signed back in the 2016 off-season. At the time, Conley Jr. signed the wealthiest contract in NBA history. A total value of $153 million over 5 years to stay with the Memphis Grizzlies. Let me repeat. This non all-star, in a league ran by superstars teaming up and winning championships, became the highest-paid contracted player in the NBA.
Tony Parker has signed with the Charlotte Hornets in what will be his final season in the NBA. It is a 2 year/$10 million contract.
Mike Conley Jr. is now playing golf in Key Biscayne, FL in what will be his final year with the Memphis Grizzlies. He is in his 3rd year of his record-breaking contract and will be making over $30 million this year, 2018.
I so happen to be working at the golf course the same day Mike Conley Jr. is prepping his clubs on the golf-cart. I haven’t seen Mike Conley since that invitational back in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Same guy, 6'1, 175 lbs. I’m the only one who notices Conley Jr. as he is chatting away with the course starter and his basketball agent. I couldn’t hide my excitement. One of the regular members of the golf course is at the bag drop area and I had to share with him. Rudy is a middle-aged man, who occasionally plays at local golf tournaments, sometimes even ones out of state. He has told me about his weekend tournaments in Phoenix and I’ve seen him taking money from golfers in the parking lot after 1 or 2 rounds of golf. Very good player who has no clue about any other sport but golf.
I tell Rudy, Mike Conley Jr. is at the starter booth and he looks over and sees three gentlemen all the same height and fairly the same size. He asks me, “who’s that?” and not surprised I tell him he’s in the yellow-collared shirt because I mean who would know who Mike Conley Jr. is on the golf course?
Rudy starts catching my drift and then goes on to say, “Okay, is he some sort of athlete or something?” Rudy would of known if Mike Conley Jr. was a PGA tour golfer because he follows the tour. But I tell him he plays in the NBA and honestly Rudy wasn’t impressed. After all, a lot of basketball players have come through the golf course especially during their off-season. Legend be told LeBron James shot a commercial with comedian Kevin Hart at the golf course when he was still a member of the Miami Heat.
But then I go on to tell Rudy that Mike Conley Jr. is the richest NBA player in the league right now and that stopped him in his tracks. He looked me dead in my eye and said, “THAT GUY!?”
Hard to believe that a kid from Fayetteville, Arkansas, no bigger than Rudy himself, moved to Indiana and became an all-state player. Veteran now in the league, in his yellow golf shirt talking to the course starter and his agent who also have the same build as him, is worth more than LeBron James who is the leader of this new-era of point guard big-men looking to make this standard style of play the norm in the NBA. Trending, it sure does look like the NBA is heading in that direction.
Rudy continues on in disbelief and doesn't believe me. “That guy’s not worth $150 million.” I told him to look it up. Top PGA golfers on tour get paid that type of money. But even in golf standards, a guy like Mike Conley Jr. earning a $150+ million contract is mind-blowing.
Currently, Mike Conley Jr. is the starting point guard for the Utah Jazz, who have the best record in the NBA. No one questions it. No one is caught off guard by Mike Conley’s old-school type of play. He’s just doing what he’s been accustomed to his whole career. Even before he got into the NBA, every team Mike Conley Jr. has played for is a winning team and finds ways to vie for a championship. Game recognize game.//
You can make it in whatever you’re consistently good at. You don’t even have to be great.