Conley’s 12-year run as the greatest guard in Grizzles history has come to an end. As he helps turn Utah into an NBA Finals contender, he also helps the Razorbacks brand nationwide.
Mike Conley, Jr. has accomplished a lot so far in his 12-year career.
He’s the all-time leading scorer in Memphis Grizzlies history, and in 2016 signed a five-year, $153 million deal — then the largest deal ever seen in the NBA. After a recent trade to the Jazz, Conley is now a centerpiece on a Utah team with legit conference title hopes in 2019-2020.
As arguably the best NBA Arkansan point guard of all time, the Fayetteville native is also playing an active role in promoting Razorback basketball. During the offseason, he frequents Bud Walton Arena and the Hogs’ practice facility, training and working out with former players and coaches.
Here’s the latest evidence, a photo montage showing Conley training and chatting with coach Eric Musselman among others:
This kind of NBA star endorsement is especially critical for Musselman as he builds a reputation for the Razorbacks program as a pipeline to the highest level of the game. Arkansas hasn’t produced near the same wattage of NBA star power in the last decade as border state flagship programs like LSU and Oklahoma, but Conley’s endorsement will only help bridge that gap in current and future recruiting battles with those programs.
The twist, of course, is that Conley never played for the Hogs. He played for Ohio State instead.
Mike Conley Jr.’s Arkansas Roots
Conley grew up in Fayetteville because of his dad, Mike Conley, Sr., a former Razorback track superstar. Conley Sr. won nine NCAA individual titles in track and field and two Olympic medals — gold (1992) and silver (1984) — in the triple jump. At 6’1″, he is also one of the shortest human beings to ever dunk from behind the free throw line.
Conley Jr. took off in a different sport, but flashed some of that inherited world-class athleticism. Throughout elementary school, he was a regular around Fayetteville basketball hotspots, often needing to play against older competition to find a true challenge. Here’s what happened when he played against his own age:
“The best basketball game I ever played was probably when I was in the fifth grade. I was in Arkansas. We were playing, I think it was Holcomb Elementary or New School. I can’t remember which I was at. For whatever reason, I decided I was going to try and score every time. I had 51 that game, but it felt like I didn’t even shoot that much. I’m very unselfish, and I know I had 20 assists because I was moving the ball. But, it felt like I was a part of every single point scored that game. It really felt like I couldn’t miss. I couldn’t be stopped. I’d never felt better during a game than that one.”-Mike Conley, Jr., via the Los Angeles Times
Conley, Jr. and his parents were friends with Nolan Richardson and Ron (and Ronnie) Brewer, as well. Although Conley, Jr. moved with his family to Indianapolis, Ind. at the start of junior high, he was likely going to become a Razorback had Nolan Richardson not been fired. Though Richardson’s replacement, Stan Heath, struggled to win at the same level, his main downfall in recruiting Conley, Jr. was failing to give him one-on-one time.
Instead of visiting the Conleys personally, Heath sent his assistant coach Oronde Taliaffero instead, according to Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Wally Hall.
Conley, meanwhile, was teaming up with center Greg Oden — then the most hyped high school recruit since LeBron James — to dominate on the high school and AAU levels. Despite what the duo insisted, it’s hard not to believe they wanted to keep a great thing going and play together in college as well. (Oden, an Indiana native, had no strong ties to the Razorbacks until his younger brother, Anthony Oden, played offensive line for the Hogs.)
“The truth, however, was that they weren’t attached at the hip, as Oden was seriously interested in Michigan State and Indiana, while Conley’s admiration of Chris Paul left his sights set on Wake Forest,” Mark Titus wrote for The Ringer. “To this day, both Oden and Conley insist that they ended up at Ohio State because it made the most sense for each of them individually, not because they conspired to spend their only college season together. The Buckeyes had one of the few staffs in the country that treated them as separate people during the recruiting process.”
Though Oden was already known, Mike Conley, Jr. burst onto the national scene as a star for Ohio State in 2006-07. He led the Buckeyes to the championship game of the NCAA Tournament, then left after his freshman year. The Grizzlies got him with the No. 4 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft.
Nowadays, however, Conley, Jr. frequents northwest Arkansas in the off season and seems to rep the Razorbacks as much, if not more, than the Buckeyes. Though the program can’t quite claim him as one of its own, that’s a much-welcome assist nonetheless.
Mike Conley, Jr. = Greatest NBA Arkansan Point Guard Ever?
Picking him at No. 4 in the 2007 Draft, Memphis got its money’s worth. A floor general in every sense of the term, Conley guided the franchise to its most successful era since beginning in Vancouver nearly 25 years ago (the franchise moved to Memphis in 2001).
The team made the playoffs seven times in Conley’s twelve seasons. Led by Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, it advanced all the way to the Western Conference Finals in 2012-13.
Individually, no Grizzly can match the 31-year-old’s accomplishments. He leaves as the franchise’s career leader in points (11,733), assists (4,509), three-pointers (1,086) and games played (788).
As a Fayetteville, Ark. native, Conley is also moving up the ranks in major statistical categories for NBA Arkansans. Among Arkansans, he ranks in the top-ten in nearly every statistical category.
|1. Joe Johnson||20,405|
|2. Scottie Pippen||18,940|
|3. Glen Rice||18,336|
|4. Joe Barry Carroll||12,455|
|5. Sidney Moncrief||11,931|
|6. Archie Clark||11,819|
|7. Paul Silas||11,782|
|8. Mike Conley||11,733|
|9. Derek Fisher||10,713|
|10. Fat Lever||10,433|
Assuming Mike Conley plays 70 games next season, he should move up to fourth place on this list by the end of the campaign. This was calculated by using his career average of 14.9 PPG; a very conservative estimate considering he averaged 21.1 PPG last season.
|1. Joe Johnson||1,978|
|2. Glen Rice||1,559|
|3. Derek Fisher||1,248|
|4. Mike Conley||1,086|
|5. Scottie Pippen||978|
|1. Scottie Pippen||6,135|
|2. Joe Johnson||5,001|
|3. Fat Lever||4,696|
|4. Mike Conley||4,509|
|5. Derek Fisher||3,809|
This is the category where Conley, Jr. really shines. At only 31 years of age, it is very possible that Conley will sit atop this list when all is said and done.
|1. Scottie Pippen||2,307|
|2. Fat Lever||1,666|
|3. Derek Fisher||1,352|
|4. Mike Conley||1,161|
|5. Joe Johnson||1,071|
Growing up in northwest Arkansas, and later in Indiana, Conley modeled his game after Allen Iverson’s. In Memphis, Conley did a tremendous job of emulating Iverson’s defensive prowess. Thanks to his footwork and quick hands, he has a well-deserved reputation as one of the league’s premier guards on the defensive end.
Except for a brief spell in the 1990s, Arkansas has always been a football state. Still, it’s always punched above its weight in producing elite basketball players. Pippen and Moncrief are Hall of Famers at multiple levels. Rice and Johnson each played 15-plus years and were some of the game’s most underrated scorers.
Conley belongs in this exclusive club. Indeed, he’s made a strong case he should be the starting point guard on an all-time NBA Arkansans first team. Although he will no longer play in Memphis, just minutes from his home state, out west Conley will continue to make Arkansans everywhere proud.
Amazingly, Conley, Jr. has never made an All-Star team. That’s primarily because 1) He played in a small market his whole career and 2) has had the misfortune of playing in the same conference and era as point guard counterparts Tony Parker, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, Damian Lillard and Chris Paul. All of those guys, sans Williams, are or project to be first ballot Hall of Fame shoe-ins.
In short, Conley had the misfortune of playing against likely the greatest collection of point guard talent ever seen in a single conference. But make no mistake about it, Conley is an All-Star caliber player.
In fact, there’s even a strong case that he’s the No. 1 most underrated NBA player of the 2010s:
For more on Conley, Jr.’s Arkansas background and his ties to childhood friend Ronnie Brewer, make sure to check out:
How Conley makes the Utah Jazz a strong threat to win Western Conference
With the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty finished, at least for a season while Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson recover, the Western Conference is wide open.
The blockbuster trade bringing Anthony Davis to Los Angeles made the Lakers the early favorites to make the 2020 NBA Finals out of the west, but Conley’s addition to the Jazz makes Utah a legit threat as well.
He was traded to the Utah Jazz on June 19. In return, Memphis got Grayson Allen, Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, the 23rd pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and a future first-round pick.
The Jazz proved themselves as a up-and-coming young team in 2017-18 with an unexpected surge in the playoffs thanks to the brilliance of then-rookie Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell didn’t flourish in his second season as expected, but a big reason for that was having to take on too much, too early.
Mitchell had to often play as the primary scorer and creator for others, which is a lot to handle for any 22-year-old, no matter how precocious. The Jazz’s previous starting point guard Ricky Rubio is simply not the scoring threat that Conley is. Though Rubio is a great passer, he doesn’t have the tear drop shot that Conley has, nor can he shoot as well from beyond the arc. In short, Rubio’s presence makes it harder for Utah to spread the floor on offense.
“Conley has lost a half-step, but he is still at least Rubio’s equal on defense — and probably a little better in hothouse moments,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote. “He is less prone to gambling out of scheme.”
Speaking of gambling, the Utah Jazz rank anywhere between No. 8 and No. 11 among the teams most likely to win the 2020 NBA championship, according to major casinos with sports books.
In sum, Conley will serve as turbo fuel to the offensive games of every other Utah starter. He’ll allow Mitchell to rest from playmaking and take over as a pure shooting guard, a place he should thrive. There is a domino effect here, too, since the Jazz’s previous No. 2 scorer, Joe Ingles, can now operate as the third scorer. He should thrive from the three-point range in that role.
“Ingles settles back into a role as a secondary creator against scrambled defenses,” Lowe wrote. “He has drained at least 40 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s in each of the last four seasons, and cracked the 46 percent barrier — wow! — in both 2016-17 and 2017-18 before a slight downturn last season.”
“Acquiring Conley slots everyone into a more natural hierarchy. Very quietly, Conley had an All-NBA-caliber season in what ended up as his Memphis swan song. He can share the controls with Mitchell; both will munch on more catch-and-shoot 3s as a result. Conley is a steadier and more precise crunch-time ball handler who can calm Utah’s offense amid the late-game frenzy.”-Zach Lowe, ESPN.com
On top of that, Conley’s strength — pick and roll offense — matches the Jazz’s strength. This should be great news for Utah’s lob-catching big men, Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors.
Conley ranks annually as one of the league’s most efficient scorers in the pick-and-roll,” Kevin O’Connor wrote for The Ringer. “Now he’ll join a Jazz team that finished more possessions using the pick-and-roll than any other team in the NBA, according to Synergy. Conley is so good because he changes tempos and can score from all areas of the court. Over the past six seasons, he’s hit 36 percent of his dribble-jumper 3s, 41.9 percent of his dribble-jumper 2s, and 57.6 percent of his shots around the rim. The man knows how to score. And he can pass, too. Mitchell has shot 40.1 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s in his career, and Conley will feed him more of those chances. Rudy Gobert could be in for a career-best season finishing lobs.”
[H/t to sportswriter Teddy Rydquist for writing and research help with this post]