Mike Conley Jr. came into the NBA with mixed expectations
After starting for a National Championship finalist in Ohio State, and “wowing” the country in the NCAA tournament with his lightning fast speed and ability to get to the basket, many scouts saw Conley Jr. developing into a player much like Finals MVP Tony Parker of San Antonio.
Others just saw Conley as another ultra fast point guard who was too weak to be able to score around the basket as well as he did in college, and had a jump shot that was way too inconsistent.
There was another knock on Conley that did not include any of Conley’s skills as a basketball player or his behavior off the court: his lifelong teammate, Greg Oden.
Oden was nothing short of a high school phenom, and probably would have been the No. 1 pick in the draft with or without his one year of college at Ohio State. Conley had been playing with Oden since middle school, and scouts questioned Conley’s ability to produce without the seven-foot man-child.
The Memphis Grizzlies, then and now in rebuilding mode, rolled the dice and took a chance on the freshman point guard with the fourth pick of the NBA draft.
To go along with the Grizzlies giving away star big man Pau Gasol and flushing their season down the toilet, the young point guard only played 53 games that entire year. Plus, the same people that doubted him before were quick to deride Conley as being too weak to be as effective a player as he was in high school and college.
Conley opened some eyes at the end of the season where he scored over 13 points, had at least five assists, and never had more than five turnovers in the each of the last five games. The good end to an up-and-down rookie season was definitely a good sign.
Well, Conley’s sophomore season did not begin as well as his rookie year ended. He rarely cracked double-figure scoring and could never find a rhythm while running the Grizzlies’ offense.
Mike Conley, Jr., though, was not the only one struggling. The whole team was. That eventually led to the firing of then-head coach Mike Iavaroni.
Grizzlies' management then went after long-time Grizz assistant Lionel Hollins, who was, at the time, an assistant for the Milwaukee Bucks. The Grizzlies again took a risk and offered Hollins a head coaching contract for the long-term, not just as an interim.
If this change had never happened, and the Grizzlies had kept Iavaroni, a safe assumption would be that Conley would continue to struggle and would continue to come off the bench for the Grizzlies.
The Hollins hiring benefited Conley’s offense tremendously. One of the key reasons was that Hollins immediately instilled confidence in his flagging point guard by announcing that Conley Jr. would start and learn on-the-job.
As a direct result, he has improved statistically in just about every offensive category.
It is not just the statistics that have improved, though; it is also his improvement driving to the basket, his shooting stroke, and controlling the offense.
With Iavaroni, Conley was not ever comfortable at point guard, and O.J. Mayo would often bring the ball up court while Conley was in the game.
Under Hollins, Conley finally has the freedom to run the offense and have more plays designed for him. The thing Hollins stressed the most in his first press conference was his desire for Conley to have more freedom and to be more aggressive.
Since the Hollins hiring, Conley has been averaging close to 15 points and six assists per contest, while improving his three-point shooting percentage. That's a pretty big jump for a player that was averaging around eight points and four assists under Iavaroni.
There is no question that if the Grizzlies are going to be a threat anytime soon they need Conley Jr. to play at his highest level.
The Grizzlies may not be a playoff team by next year, but if Conley Jr. continues to play at this level and finds ways to improve, there is no doubt the Grizzlies will be a more entertaining team to watch and a team that will be in the playoffs down the road.