Rob Oller commentary: Conley grows into NBA star for rising Memphis

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Few things happen quickly in humidified Memphis. From sleepy blues and slow-cook barbecue to the sauntering Mississippi River, the city moves at the speed of an Elvis love song.

FedEx packages would ship even faster if company headquarters were located anywhere but Memphis.

Into this community of lazy southern comfort stepped Mike Conley Jr., a fast-twitch Formula One car with no brake pedal. When the Memphis Grizzlies drafted Conley No. 4 overall in the 2007 NBA draft, they were getting a point guard whose college career ran counter to the take-your-time personality of the place.

At Ohio State, things happened fast for Conley, who started as a freshman and finished as one, too; his breakout play in the NCAA Tournament impressed NBA scouts enough for Conley to become a lottery pick. And so it was Goodbye, Columbus, almost before he said hello.

Then Memphis happened, and deferred gratification replaced the immediate impact that framed his short career with the Buckeyes. If Conley’s career didn’t disappear, it at least blended into the background.

Nothing unusual about that. For every LeBron James and Larry Bird who wow the NBA from the start, many more draft picks need time getting up to speed. Conley suffered two injuries his rookie season that delayed his progress, but incrementally he has improved to become one of the top point guards in the league.

The maturation process appears complete. On Tuesday, Conley scored 26 points and made a three-pointer from the left wing with 1:58 left to put the Grizzlies ahead to stay in their 99-93 victory over Oklahoma City that tied their playoff series at a game .

He became the fourth player over the past 25 seasons to collect 26 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in a road playoff victory, joining Michael Jordan, James and Baron Davis.

“Mike Conley is now one of the top five point guards in the league, whether anybody likes it or not,” Grizzlies guard Tony Allen said. “I know a lot of people have got their favorites on who they think it should be, but Mike Conley is in that conversation now, being able to do these types of things on the court night in and night out.”

It was only a matter of time. Conley always had the ability and drive to become an NBA star, but a young player typically does not deliver on potential until “belief” becomes second nature.

When Conley first arrived in Memphis, he shared an interesting perspective on where he fit in, saying that although his skills belonged in the NBA, he was not certain whether he belonged there with them.

The issue was not talent, but the trappings that come with it.

“It’s almost a culture shock. One year you’re living in a dorm and begging your mom for a couple of bucks so you can order pizza on the weekend, and now I can spend money on whatever I want,” he said at the time. “It’s a weird feeling to be able to do that.”

Sufficiently adjusted, Conley is only getting better. His quickness and burst remain startling, while his scoring and defense continue to improve. He averaged 14.6 points, 6.1 assists and 2.18 steals (third-best among point guards) during the regular season, but has jumped his scoring to 17.9 and assists to 7.8 during the playoffs.

Of note: Conley outplayed Chris Paul in the Grizzlies’ series victory against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Conley’s speed allows him to create space for his jump shot; defenders must back off or risk getting burned by him driving past them, but it took some external creating of space — the midseason trade of Rudy Gay — to enable him to shine.

“He’s a steady point guard that deserves more credit than he gets,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.

Steady as she goes. A perfect fit for Memphis.

Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD

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