Thought Mike Conley was Utah’s missing piece?
Conley did, too.
Thought Conley would transition seamlessly into Utah’s system?
One of the more puzzling early season storylines was Conley’s struggles with the Jazz. To recap: Last summer, Utah acquired Conley, a 31-year old point guard coming off a career-high scoring season. Conley, most figured, would boost a middle of the pack offensive team that needed some perimeter punch. His three-point shooting would create more space for Donovan Mitchell. His playmaking would upgrade the Jazz at arguably the NBA’s most important position.
It didn’t happen.
Conley struggled out of the gate. He shot 28.6% from three in October. He shot 37.4% from the floor in November. He missed floaters, a bread-and-butter shot. He wasn’t efficient in pick-and-rolls. His assist-to-turnover ratio stunk. His defense wasn’t very good. In early December, he strained a hamstring. Without him, the Jazz improved.
Conley doesn’t hide from questions about his problems. He’ll just tell you he doesn’t have all the answers. Sitting at his locker in Boston last week, Conley admitted the early adjustments were rough. He played 12 seasons in Memphis. He played mostly one style. Like everyone else, he heard how he was supposed to be the player to push Utah further into the postseason. Like everyone else, he believed it.
“When I came into this thing, I was like, ‘man, we’ve got a lot talent.’” Conley told SI.com. “I got a lot of players here. I don't know if I'm going to do the same things I'm going to be able to do. We have five, six guys that can start, three or four of them that can average 20 points a game. I don't even know when I'm going to have the ball. In Memphis I always had the ball. So it's just a change of my role and, and I'm okay with that but it was hard. The public could look at it and say, ‘Oh, he's not doing the same things he's normally doing. He can't do it anymore.’ But it's like, man, I'm just trying to play the role I can play for this team that best helps us win with the talent that we have.”
Conley is superstitious. In Memphis, Conley’s ride to the arena took 40 minutes. In his car, he had a playlist that covered the exact length of the ride. “If I didn't get my 40 minutes of the exact same songs in the order that they were playing, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I'm going to miss every shot,’” Conley said.
In Utah, Conley’s ride is less than ten minutes. As he struggled, Conley tried to mix things up. He changed his playlist. He made his ride longer. He altered his pregame meal. He revamped his pregame wardrobe. Said Conley, “I was trying everything, a thousand different things to snap out of it.”
Recently, Conley has started to turn a corner. He shot 43.8% from three in February. He has made 45.5% of his three’s in March. He’s averaging 5.6 assists this month, too. Conley has found a home as a starter who doubles as the leader of the second unit. As Conley has improved, so have the Jazz. Monday’s loss to Toronto snapped a five-game winning streak.
Is Conley’s recent upswing sustainable?
“I guess I would ask the question differently,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “Is there something that would make someone think that it's not sustainable? Because I think this is who he is … early on, there were so many things that were new to him and then as he's beginning to kind of get comfortable, he gets hurt … him finding a rhythm with Donovan [Mitchell] and then with Joe [Ingles] and then with Bojan [Bogdanovic]. Rudy [Gobert] is probably as different a player that he's played with as anybody. There was just a confluence of things.”
As Conley struggled, Snyder’s message was simple: Relax. Have fun. You have nothing to prove. “He's not in a position where he has to do anything or show anybody anything,” Snyder said. “Just be [himself].” In recent weeks, Conley said, he has started to feel like it. He has grown more comfortable in Utah. His family, which had a strong bond with Memphis, has too. He’s adjusted to Snyder’s system, which has asked him to pick the ball up higher defensively and play more off the ball on the other end. As the minutes have become more consistent, so has Conley.
“I don't want to have to defend Mike,” Snyder said. “I don't think I need to. He's shown what he can do in the league and the less he thinks about whatever anyone expects of himself, including himself, the better. Don't have expectations. Just play.”
Conley began this season projected to be a difference maker. He still can be. The Jazz are currently the fourth seed in the West. They could climb to third, while they will need to play well to fend off Houston and Oklahoma City to avoid dropping to sixth. Utah will play the first of two games against the Thunder in the final month on Wednesday night.
Conley feels good about the way the Jazz are playing. “We’re locked in,” Conley said. And he feels really good about where he is compared to the start of the season. “I feel there, I really do,” Conley said. “Physically, I feel great. I feel like myself. I’m getting the ball in my hands more, I’m making plays. I’m getting into a better rhythm, especially early in games. I’m just really excited.”
A healthy, productive and happy Conley? Utah should be excited, too.