Mike Conley changed his game on the fly after the Memphis Grizzlies dealt Rudy Gay to carry them to their best season ever. Now that he's become more of a lead guard than a caretaker, the window is opening for Conley to become an elite point guard.
Last offseason, I delved into the idea of whether Conley would make the leap. After comparing him with the elites as they stood heading into the 2012-13 season, I looked at his shooting and passing weaknesses.
In his sixth season, Conley improved his mid-range shooting but must shift his focus to new problem spots. His passing issues pertain more to half-court situations.
How does he compare with other top-notch point guards?
The calculus has changed as the landscape has. Chris Paul, Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook remain the very best at the position. Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo's positions depend on whether Rose will return with the same capability as before his ACL tear and Rondo's ability to excel without superstar counterparts.
Deron Williams and John Wall impress many fans. However, Williams is a high-volume player who produces empty numbers. While Williams improved his field-goal percentage by 3.3 percent last year, he was progressively worse each quarter (going from 48.7 percent in the first to 36.8 percent in the fourth).
D-Will doesn't play defense, allowing 110 points per 100 possessions for his career.
Wall still must prove he's as good as the second half of last season. He averaged 22.7 points per game on 48.7 percent shooting in the last two months of the season after missing the first 34 games to injury and scoring 13.7 per game on 40.3 percent from the field in his first 23 appearances.
His production may have been inflated by his place on a bad team testing its future assets.
Conley shares the peak on defense with Paul. Allowing 100.2 points per 100 possessions and gathering 4.7 defensive win shares, Conley led point guards in both categories. He led the league in steals and was third in steals per game behind Paul and Rubio.
While Tony Allen was the emotional leader for the "grit 'n' grind" defense, Conley forced more turnovers while taking fewer chances. The Ohio State product contains opposing ball-handlers with great discipline.
Conley's defense puts him head and shoulders above Williams, Irving, Parker (who has decent metrics but often rests on defense) and Curry. But a couple aspects of his offense require adjustments.
Stronger finishes must happen in the paint
After making critical improvements with his mid-range jumper, his next area of need is inside 10 feet. Conley went from shooting 37.5 percent from mid-range in 2011-12 to 44.3 percent last season.
His inside attempts demand greater attention now that he's attacking more in his new lead guard role.
According to NBA.com, Conley was 49.8 percent inside eight feet in 2012-13 after shooting 52.5 percent in 2011-12 and 52.8 percent in 2010-11 from that range. That's insufficient when he's taking as many inside shots as ever.
Conley's inside shooting pales in comparison to that of Parker. According to NBA.com, the San Antonio Spurs point man shot 64.5 percent in the restricted area, 11.5 percent better than Conley. In the non-restricted area of the paint, Parker shot 45.4 percent, 9.1 percent better than Conley.
Granted, the Memphis man hasn't had as much experience shooting in the paint. Whereas Parker has made a career of driving the lane, Conley just started taking greater interest in it. This past campaign was only his second with six or more shots per game in the key.
Conley has much to learn from Parker in this aspect. The 31-year-old rushes into the lane and isn't afraid to draw contact. Conley, who has great speed and has built muscle in the past year, could match the inside ability of his fellow miniature point guard by bursting fearlessly to the inside.
Take better three-pointers
Conley has always been a promising three-point shooter but never maintained primacy after shooting 40.6 percent in his second season.
Last season, Conley started wonderfully but fell hard. After shooting 46.8 percent from beyond the arc in November, he dropped to 31.9 percent in December and didn't have another month better than 36 percent until April (37.5 percent).
Consistency would be a fair point to make, but the broader point is that he needs to select better three-pointers. He took 40.6 percent of his threes from the right wing but made only 32.8 from that area.
Meanwhile, he shot the best from the corners, from which he took the fewest three-point attempts.
An area in which new head coach Dave Joerger could set himself apart from Lionel Hollins is enabling more outside shots. Joerger could draw sets calling for corner threes by Conley.
Indeed, that the Grizz have been in the bottom five in three-point attempts the past five years has hurt Conley's stroke. Having Jerryd Bayless, Tayshaun Prince, Quincy Pondexter and Mike Miller take plenty of shots from behind the line would help relieve pressure.
Improve the tempo of the offense
The Grizzlies play a finicky offense that was average even after the Gay trade allowed for some shifts that improved its efficiency. Throughout the year, Conley ran the slowest offense in the league with a pace of 88.4 possessions per 48 minutes.
While the front men were slow to get in position, Conley was even slower setting up plays. With the incongruity created by the three key players in the offense, one can hardly wonder why Joerger refers to the style of the prior regime as "vomit basketball," per NBA.com's Steve Aschburner.
Joerger should work with Conley on setting up the half court quicker. That would promote fluidity in their plays and faster scores.
Also, if Conley improves the flow of the offense, he can boost an already clean offense. Conley turned it over 2.5 times per 36 minutes, while the Grizzlies had the eighth-best turnover percentage at 13.3 percent.
By tightening the pace of the offense, Conley can make his job as a passer easier.
Conclusion: Conley isn't far from the top five
The Grizzlies' new go-to scorer turned the corner after Gay left the team, averaging 16.9 points and 6.4 assists per game. That didn't quite earn a place at the table with the elite, but he gained ground.
Conley still has a couple significant issues to address. Showing greater control of the offense could raise his reputation by itself. Attacking the basket better looms large, but it takes more experience than he had last year.
Joerger, who, unlike Hollins, has some offensive aspirations, may help this point guard who has grown incrementally each year.
While he is in his prime, Conley can take a big step in his first full season in a relatively new role as Memphis' primary shooter and ball-handler.