LOS ANGELES -- Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley picked up the phone in a Columbus, Ohio, hotel room last summer, called Marc Gasol and put him on speaker. "I told him how much I believed I was going to improve," Conley said, "how much more assertive I was going to be and what I was going to do to keep our team together." They talked for nearly 20 minutes. Then Conley hung up, dialed Rudy Gay and told him the same thing. After that it was O.J. Mayo and finally coach Lionel Hollins. Conley asked Hollins: "What do you expect from me? What can I do better?"
What Conley did not tell his coach or his teammates is that the conversations were part of an exercise designed to test his communication and leadership skills. The whole time he was on the phone, a sports psychologist was sitting across from him jotting notes.
Psychologists are becoming as fashionable in the NBA as personal chefs. The Lakers' Ron Artest thanked one for helping him to the championship last season. The Blazers' Brandon Roy saw one regularly over the summer. Conley, on a recommendation from Hollins, asked one to visit him during the offseason in Columbus. He did not know that the psychologist would spend four straight days with him.
"I would wake up and he'd work out with me, eat lunch with me, eat dinner with me, and then be back first thing the next day," Conley said. "It felt like I was being debriefed in a long investigation."
Conley was searching for an old self, the fearless attacker who raced to rims and led Ohio State to the 2007 NCAA title game, only to disappear behind NBA three-point lines.
"I became a player who was like, 'You guys do this, you guys do that, I'll just wait my turn,'" Conley said. "If you read scouting reports, they said I would pass every time. I had to get my killer instinct back."
Conley and the psychologist watched tapes from Ohio State, then tapes from the NBA, identifying when he was penetrating the defense and when he was simply shuttling the ball around the perimeter. Conley zeroed in on one tape in particular, of a game late last season against Denver.
"I was getting into the lane, going to the rim and finishing," Conley said of a 22-point performance. "That's the kind of basketball I used to play. It's the feeling I wanted to take into this season."
Coaches often harp on their point guards to pass first, score later, but Conley is selfless by nature. He played in high school and college with Greg Oden, so his primary responsibility was feeding the post. The Grizzlies asked him to find his inner ball hog.
"I know everyone wants point guards who pass, but in this league, you've got to score," said Grizzlies assistant coach Damon Stoudamire, who works with Conley. "He'd been looked at as a fifth starter, a guy you can leave open. He had to become a threat."
Conley reported to training camp intent on replicating that game against Denver. He led the Grizzlies in scoring during the preseason and averaged 15 points through their first three regular-season games. His scoring was up, as were his assists, and he was coming away with more than twice as many steals and rebounds per game than he did last season. Of course, three games is not much of a sample size, but it was enough for the Grizzlies, who rewarded Conley with a five-year, $40 million contract extension.
Much of the NBA community was shocked, Conley no exception. Only four other members of the '07 draft class signed extensions and three are franchise cornerstones -- Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, Chicago's Joakim Noah and Atlanta's Al Horford (Jared Dudley, a valuable reserve for Phoenix, was the fourth). Besides, the Grizzlies just handed Gay more than $80 million last summer and they have Zach Randolph and Gasol set to become free agents after the season. They theoretically had to hoard money and cap space.
As recently as last week, Conley did not believe the team had any interest in extending him. Then his father and agent, Mike Conley Sr., called him in his Los Angeles hotel room Monday night and relayed the terms of the deal. "Thanks a lot, old man," Conley said. "You did it."
Conley insists that the contract alleviates pressure, but the burden is on him to prove that these first few games are a true indicator of his progress. As his psychologist told him Monday night, "You can't stop now." The Grizzlies fell hard to the Lakers on Tuesday, but Conley scored 16 points with eight assists, five rebounds and three steals, prompting a scout to say: "I know there's been a lot of talk about his deal -- and they definitely could have waited a little longer to do it -- but I like what I'm seeing from him. He is much more decisive than he's ever been."
Conley also looks different. A 20-year-old wisp when he came out of Ohio State, he devoted the 2009 offseason to developing his upper body and last summer to strengthening his legs, which he believes will help him stay in front of opposing point guards and gamble for steals.
"I've flipped the way I think," Conley said. "I'm telling myself, 'Get a steal or get a rebound, push the ball, get inside and get to the rim.' In my mind, I've become a scorer."
The Grizzlies do not need Conley to go overboard. They had the highest-scoring starting five in the NBA last season and now their bench is improved with the addition of Tony Allen and the emergence of Darrell Arthur. They went 8-0 in the preseason, and while those records can be deceiving, 16 of the last 17 teams to win seven or more preseason games made the playoffs. The Grizzlies showed they were no fluke with an opening-week win in Dallas, their first in nine trips.
"We are right there, right around the corner," Conley said.
Owner Michael Heisley has guaranteed a playoff berth, but when it comes to long-term contention, Heisley is under just as much scrutiny as Conley. He must demonstrate that the money spent on Conley and Gay will not preclude the Grizzlies from extending Gasol, a true back-to-the-basket center who is arguably the most valuable player on the team. Gasol was encouraged by Conley's contract -- "It means we're serious," he said -- but the real test of that is to come.
The goal for the Grizzlies this season, beyond making the playoffs, is making the case that their nucleus is worth keeping intact. In a recent game, Conley gathered the team seven times, each huddle dutifully noted by his psychologist. When the game was over, the psychologist called him and said: "You should have made it 10. You're the one who has to keep these guys together." Conley thought back to the moments he missed.
His contract may continue to be a source of debate. His leadership, the Grizzlies are gambling, will not.