My first memory of Michael Conley, Jr. came back in 2006.
He was wearing the Ohio State scarlet then, instead of the white, black and teal he currently sports with the Memphis Grizzlies, who made him the fourth pick of the 2007 NBA draft. The Buckeyes were in the heated environ of the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. taking on the North Carolina Tar Heels.
The explosiveness and the vision were the first things that set Conley apart from his peers. There was a wiry nature to his athleticism, as if his body were all coil, just waiting to spring.
Then there was the poise. Nothing rattled this kid.
Conley headed to the left wing during that game against the Tar Heels, using that cool, confident dribble of his.
He began backing down his defender just inside the three-point line, as if he were biding his time and waiting for some seam to appear that he could thread with that oft-unconventional, but maddeningly effective, ability of his.
Then before you could blink, he'd blown past his defender, rocketed along the baseline and finished in traffic for a hard-earned two points.
Gotta love that one-year rule, I thought to myself as I sat there shaking my head at the bit of individual brilliance I'd just seen.
Implemented in 2006, the "one-and-done" rule had forced Conley and a bunch of other blue chip high school recruits to postpone their NBA dreams for at least one year after their high school graduation.
Hence, we saw a raft of incredible talent filter through the collegiate ranks. Like Conley, these players were a class above the normal crop of freshmen. Think of Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James—three players who entered the draft before the one-and-done rule—taking advantage of 18-year-olds who have no business being on the same court as them. That gives you some idea how transcendent these talents proved.
Conley was a freshman at Ohio State during that '06-07 season, part of Thad Matta's heralded recruiting class that included the likes of the consensus No. 1 high school prospect Greg Oden along with blue chippers Daequan Cook, David Lighty and junior college transfer Othello Hunter.
It was considered the second-best recruiting class of '06, falling just behind North Carolina. Hence, there was some cred' at stake when those two teams met.
Recruiting site Rivals had called Conley "the best pure point guard in the class." And during that game against North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Nov. 29, Conley played that part to near-perfection.
The No. 1-ranked Buckeyes, playing without Oden, who was recovering from injury, dropped that game 98-89, their first loss of the season.
But they'd made the Dean Dome crowd sweat for nearly the entire game, leading 48-44 at halftime and then 68-67 with as little as 8:42 to play.
Conley had been a big part of all that, leading all players with eight assists and committing just three turnovers. It was a sign of the season to come, in which he averaged 11.3 points, 6.1 assists (to just 2.2 turnovers) and 2.2 steals. He'd shot 51 percent from the field, helping lead the Buckeyes all the way to the national championship game, where they came up short against that Billy Donovan and Florida dynasty, which gathered its second consecutive title.
It was a heartbreaking end to the season, but it was difficult not to feel giddy about Conley's future prospects. He looked set for a long and prosperous professional career.
He entered the NBA in '07 and proceeded to endure the life of a lottery pick. While making good money, Conley was on a team that, while steeped in young talent, were a long ways from becoming contenders. There was a lot of losing. (The Grizzlies finished 20-62 in Conley's rookie season.)
The point guard struggled to make the transition from college to the pros. Here his quickness was no longer a revelation; rather, it was a trait shared by each guard he faced.
Then came a breakthrough. Conley worked with a sports psychologist ahead of the 2010-11 season, looking to improve his communication and leadership skills and get back that killer edge he felt he'd lost during years of drifting about the perimeter, not trusting his shot.
In the NBA, the three-point line, which had never been his favorite (he shot just 30 percent at Ohio State), became a monster, impinging upon his natural intrepidity. Defenders sagged off now, daring him to shoot.
"I became a player who was like, 'You guys do this, you guys do that, I'll just wait my turn,'" Conley said. "If you read scouting reports, they said I would pass every time. I had to get my killer instinct back."
He cycled through game film from previous seasons, zeroing in on occasions where he'd eschewed passing the ball around the perimeter, instead looking to charge toward the hoop. Conley committed to memory moments, and set about putting them into practice.
A five-year, $40 million extension given to Conley ahead of the '10-11 season caused eyebrows to raise around the NBA, but it was a signal of the Grizzlies' confidence in their fourth-year player—he was ready to make a breakthrough.
Conley has since made that deal look like a very, very good investment.
He averaged career bests in points (13.7), assists (6.5) and steals (1.8) that season and helped key Memphis's surprise showing in the playoffs, where the Grizzlies shocked No. 1-seeded San Antonio with a dominant 4-2 first-round victory before giving Oklahoma City all they could handle in seven games of heated Western Conference semifinal action.
Conley had upped his scoring for the playoffs, pouring in 15.2 points in 13 games. He was back to the player who'd once captivated national audiences in the biggest occasions.
This postseason, with Memphis a trendy pick to get past the revitalized Los Angeles Clippers, Conley has continued his upward trend.
Despite losing Game 1 at home in inglorious fashion (LA shocked the NBA world by coming back from 27 points down in the fourth quarter to win), Conley has been excellent, averaging 15 points and 7.3 assists to just 1.7 turnovers, helping Memphis to the Game 2 victory.
But Conley's reformation is far from finished product. He's still prone to lapses in concentration, reverting back to the timid player from the last decade.
In Game 3 in Los Angeles, Conley switched between the old and the new.
At times, during the third quarter of what turned out to be a classic at the Staples Center (we've seen plenty of those from the Lakers in April in May, but it's nice to see the Clip Show getting their fill at last), he showed that old tendency to drift around the perimeter on offense instead of looking to get himself involved via sharp cuts to the basket.
Conley endured another rough shooting night, but he took care of the ball and acquitted himself well with the thankless task of guarding Chris Paul on defense.
His eight assists were second only to Paul's 11 in the game, and Conley had just one turnover to the LA star's three.
But as impressive as Conley's distribution was—he has an uncanny ability to unlock defenses with a killer pass—he could not rival Paul's 24 points, seven of which came during that crucial fourth quarter.
Just as he once studied his own film, Conley should pore over Paul's. The Clippers star was again a man apart during Game 3, willing his team to win and taking charge when the situation arose.
Conley, like the Miami Heat's James, sometimes looks as if he lacks that killer edge. If he truly wants to join the game's elite, he'll have to get one.
Thankfully, there's still time left in the first round to find it, even with the Grizzlies staring down a 2-1 series deficit with another game in LA to deal with.
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