Mike Conley's incremental evolution will soon pay off. The Memphis Grizzlies' point man should tip the scale on his borderline All-Star ability in 2014-15 after validating his scoring ability last season.
Entering his eighth season, Conley keeps rising through the ranks at his position. His recent maturation as a scorer has made him a threat on both ends of the floor.
This spurred discussion of Mike Conley as underrated. As ESPN Radio Memphis' Brad Carson tweeted, Charles Barkley was among those with this utterance on his lips.
Barkley just called @mconley11 "the most underrated player in the NBA, probably."— Brad Carson (@BradCarson) May 3, 2014
Defense demanding attention
His defensive play garners the greatest respect. Conley earned an All-Defensive Second Team honor in 2012-13. He has placed in the top six in steals per game three times. In 2012-13, he allowed 100 points per 100 possessions.
Don Wade of the Memphis Daily News discussed Conley's mastery of the steal, in which he describes his study of the art and says, "I think I've learned a happy medium to where I'm physical and then I can back off."
Conley will easily bounce back from a subpar defensive year in which he allowed 106 points per 100 possessions while ranking among the top 20 with a steals rate of 2.4 percent.
Like any other Grizzly, Conley struggled to plug holes with Marc Gasol injured for 23 games, allowing 111 points per 100 possessions during that time. He experienced a small boost after Marc Gasol returned, allowing 105 per 100.
He allowed 103 per 100 or fewer in three playoff games against the Oklahoma City Thunder and had four games with multiple steals. While the team failed to slow the Thunder in Game 7, he snatched four steals.
Will Mike Conley earn an All-Star appearance?
For Conley, this won't be as important to attaining his first All-Star spot as what he'll do with the ball.
Meeting the scoring standard
Offensive figures play a large role in All-Star selections, even for point guards. All four Western Conference All-Stars at the position posted at least 19.6 points per 36 minutes last season.
After his best scoring campaign, Conley still must work to close the gap. He averaged 18.4 points per 36 minutes while shooting 45 percent from the field.
He removed dead spots in his shooting. He shot 61.3 percent at the rim, five percent better than a year earlier. His 37.9 percent from between three and 10 feet was a 4.3 percent improvement.
Basketball Insiders' Jessica Camerato pointed out that Conley can "see the path to the basket before it is created."
He's an above-average outside shooter, hitting 36.1 percent last year and 37.2 percent for his career. He justifies the 19.4 percent career portion of shots as long twos by hitting at a high clip. At this point, that figure will normalize in the neighborhood of his past two seasons, with 44.3 percent in 2012-13 and 42.6 percent last year.
His technique makes him an outside threat. SB Nation's Andrew Ford broke down Conley's jump shot, noting his quick release and the forward sway in his legs that relaxes his shoulders.
Conley will continue to be aggressive. He had a career-high 26 20-point games last season. Topping 30 is manageable with Conley's 24.8 percent usage rate last season, which will likely increase as Zach Randolph eases off a bit in his later years.
Also, Conley will have more opportunities to commandeer the offense with Courtney Lee occupying a starting spot for a full season. Lee is a lower-maintenance offensive player than Tony Allen, who periodically takes inexplicable shots. Besides being more effective, Lee had a 16.3 percent usage rate, 3.8 lower than Allen.
Efficiency as an answer to low assist numbers
All-Stars tally more assists than Conley, even though he's a solid offensive manager. He ranked 17th in the category last season.
But assists are a function of an offense. For the Grizzlies, Conley shares facilitation duties with Gasol. Hence, he'll never average much more than six assists per game, especially after the team ranked seventh in field-goal percentage.
Rather, one should view his low turnover numbers. He committed 2.2 turnovers per 36 minutes and had an 11.5 percent turnover rate. Lillard was the only All-Star point guard with a turnover rate that low. Also, Conley had the lowest turnover rate of anyone with six or more assists per game.
Unless otherwise noted, advanced metrics come from basketball-reference.com.