Why Mike Conley Is the Most Underrated Point Guard in the NBA

Kaitlin Murphy@kaitlinmurph14Contributor IIINovember 17, 2013

MEMPHIS, TN - NOVEMBER 04:  Mike Conley #11 of the Memphis Grizzlies dribbles the ball during the NBA game against the Boston Celtics at FedExForum on November 4, 2013 in Memphis, Tennessee.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Mike Conley is not a high-flying, flashy point guard like Derrick Rose or Chris Paul, and he can't shoot lights out from three like Stephen Curry, but Conley quietly carried the Memphis Grizzlies to the Western Conference Finals last year without much recognition and continues to be one of the only bright spots for the Grizzlies this season thus far.

Conley is shooting a career-best 49.6 percent from the field, and he is averaging a career-best 19.1 points per game.  He is also shooting a career-high 88.9 percent from the free-throw line.

Steady Improvement 

Mike's career year this season is not because of luck.  It is the result of hard work and dedication.

For his career, Conley is averaging 12.5 points per game, not a bad number, but not a great number either.  His career average doesn't justify Conley's play over the past few years because almost every season, Conley's numbers have improved. 

Here is a look at Mike Conley's numbers over his seven-season career per ESPN.

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The 6'1" point guard may not have the most talent or the most athleticism, but he also isn't one of those guys who has tons of potential and doesn't do much with it.  He continues to study the game and critique his own play in order to improve.

Mike had this to say of his improvement, as reported by Ian Thompsen of Sports Illustrated.

I just went and looked at the film as much as the critics were looking at it.  They said I couldn't shoot outside, and I looked at the percentages and I went, 'Hey, I can't make a shot outside three-point range.' They said, 'He's not a good free-throw shooter.' I said, 'Man, I'm shooting 70 percent -- I've got to shoot better than that.' And I'd go in and make a goal that I want to shoot 80-85 percent, I want to shoot 40 percent behind the three-point line, just different goals to achieve. Looking at the numbers myself helped me open my eyes and realize, 'Hey, you really do need to work on this and get in the gym.'

Conley has worked hard to improve his play. The results show that.

He is one of the most, if not the only, consistent players for the Grizzlies right now, averaging just about the same amount of points in losses as he does in wins.  (He averages 19.0 in losses 20.8 in wins. Those numbers were before the Grizzlies' 89-86 win over the Los Angeles Lakers.)

His 29-point game against the Toronto Raptors was especially promising, given that he shot 40 percent from behind the arc—something he's struggled with throughout his career—and 63.2 percent from the field.

Conley can score in a crafty, but efficient way.  He doesn't jack up shots like former teammate Rudy Gay.  He takes good shots and can hit them.

His ability to score had been overshadowed by Gay, but now with an entire season without the veteran forward to take most of the perimeter shots, Conley will have many more opportunities to score.  And so far this season, he's been taking advantage.

Makes His Team Better

Since Conley was drafted in 2007, he has not only improved his game, but the Grizzlies have improved every season as well—not counting this season since we are just nine games in.

In Conley's first year in Memphis, the Grizzlies had a Simple Rating System mark of -5.75.  A Simple Rating System is a a team-rating metric per Basketball-reference.com that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule in which zero is average.  So, the further below zero the number is the further below average the team is.

Sitting at a -5.75 SRS, the Grizzlies were very much a below-average team upon Conley's arrival.

Last season, the franchise's best ever, the Grizz's SRS was 4.33.  To put that in perspective, when the Miami Heat won their first championship two years ago, their SRS was 5.72.

Of course, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol also have had a lot to do with the increase of that number, but without Mike Conley, these two frontline stars wouldn't be as good.

In his six years in Memphis, Mike Conley has become the franchise's assist leader with 2,461.  Second on the list is Jason Williams with 2,069.  Third is Mike Bibby with 1,675 dimes.  

Although Williams and Bibby played fewer seasons for the Grizzlies, Mike Conley's 2,461 assists are no less relevant.  At 26 years old if he continues to stay with the Grizzlies for his entire career or at least most of it, he could set a franchise-assist mark that will stand for a long, long time.

It also must be noted that Conley shares assists with his excellent passing big man Marc Gasol, who averaged 4.0 assists per game last season and is tallying 3.0 this season.  

Finally, he's just really good at finding his big men.  Check out some of Conley's assists in these highlights from his 18-point, 12-assist night against the San Antonio Spurs last season.

Can Play Both Ends of the Floor

Yes, Mike Conley can score, but he can also play defense.  Last season, he was selected to the NBA's All-Defensive Second Team.  The other point guard to make the squad was Chris Paul.

When Lionel Hollins became the head coach, the Grizzlies became a good defensive team.  Last season, the Grizz boasted the league's best defense, allowing fewer than 90 points per game.

Conley has bought into that defensive mindset, setting the Grizzlies' single-season record for steals with 144 during the 2010-11 season. He also led the NBA in steals last season with 174 thefts.

A point guard leads the offense, making sure every one is in the right spot doing their job.  He can do the same for the defense.

Here is a postgame interview from last season in which Stephen Curry talks about Mike Conley's defense:

Thus far in the 2013-14 season, Conley is averaging a career low 1.8 steals per game (19th in the NBA).  He and the rest of the Grizzlies are adjusting to an entirely new offense, and the defense has suffered somewhat.  If the Grizzlies can get back the defensive intensity of their league-leading defense from last year, there's no doubt Conley's steals number will improve, as well.

Humility and Leadership

Mike Conley is used to being underrated.  Conley was voted second for Indiana's Mr. Basketball to his Ohio State teammate Greg Oden, who was also the top-recruited player in the nation.

Entering the NBA, he remained in the shadows behind Pau Gasol, Rudy Gay and others and was splitting time at point guard with Kyle Lowry.  Now that Gay and Gasol are gone, the Grizzlies' new marquee players are Zach Randolph and Pau's little brother Marc Gasol.

Conley's drive to improve and his humility have helped him gain his teammates' respect, making him one of Memphis' leaders.

As far as point guards go, Zach Randolph says Conley is the "best one" he's ever had.  Conley has become one of the go-to guys on and off the floor, and as reported by Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated, he knows he holds a lot of responsibility on the team:

When everybody has a problem, they come to me.  They're mad at somebody for not passing the ball, they come to me. I'm the guy that's always defusing everything and taking the burden off a lot of people and letting everything fall onto me. Obviously, I'm built to handle it, and I don't mind doing it. I think it helps our team and keeps a lot of pressure off a lot of these guys to have to worry about it.

Mike Conley leads his team in a preseason game this season.
Mike Conley leads his team in a preseason game this season.Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Being a great point guard isn't all about scoring points and making spectacular passes.  Point guards need to be team leaders.  Point guards run the offense, they initiate defensive sets and they communicate from coach to players.  If they don't have the respect of their teammates, the offense and the defense won't be executed and the coach's message won't get through. 

Mike Conley has improved his game on and off the court.  He has assumed a leadership role on a team with veterans like Zach Randolph and Tayshaun Prince. 

The last few seasons of steady improvement have allowed Conley to at least share the spotlight with his talented frontcourt, and his play this season will push him to the front of the trio. 

Conley is a special player.  He works hard to improve his game and to improve his team.  This season Conley will continue to have his best season yet, and if he his able to pull the struggling Grizzlies out of their early funk, he probably won't get credit for it, but it will be one of his biggest accomplishments as a point guard.