The list of accolades is gaudy and impressive.
- McDonald's All-American.
- Parade All-American.
- Multiple national titles.
- Three state titles.
- Top 30 recruit.
Over the past four years, Mike Conley Jr. was a dominant presence in both high school and on the summer circuit. He was called everything good and many things great. But honestly, if not regretfully, there is one label that stuck more than all others, one label that has always been featured in either the sentence before or after any mention of the Ohio State freshman's name.
|Mike Conley knows there are perks to being Greg Oden's teammate. (US PRESSWIRE)|
To be clear, this is not Conley complaining. If you have to be teammates with somebody, whom better than Oden, OSU's 7-foot center and the likely No. 1 pick in June's NBA Draft? Throw the ball to him, he dunks it. Miss a shot, he grabs it -- and dunks it. As far as teammates go, you could do worse.
But that's not the point.
The point is: For as accomplished as Conley is -- he won two AAU national titles before ever teaming with Oden -- just about every success from the past four years has been presented with the caveat that he was merely Oden's high school and AAU teammate. Despite Conley being showered with awards, many doubted his true worth. One Division I coach -- privately, of course -- went so far as to tell CBS SportsLine.com that Conley simply wasn't capable of playing at the high D-I level, that he would never be a factor at Ohio State.
That coach was wrong.
Conley, a 6-1 point guard, is averaging 9.3 points, 6.4 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 2.7 steals in 26.8 minutes through nine games. The 6.4 assists rank 10th nationally, and it's worth noting all these numbers have been produced while playing the first seven games without Oden, who was recovering from wrist surgery and didn't debut until a Dec. 2 victory over Valparaiso.
"It hurt a lot knowing Greg wouldn't be able to play at the start of the season and play in big games," Conley said. "But at the same time, I feel like that was an opportunity given to me to prove I can play without him and run a team even when he's not in the game."
Opportunity seized. Though, in fairness, the OSU staff insists Conley had nothing to prove to them because what they have watched in this 8-1 start is what they expected all along, that Conley would flourish in the fourth-ranked Buckeyes' system and become a vital part of what appears to be a team capable of advancing to the Final Four.
"I do think that sometimes people pigeonhole him as Greg's sidekick, but that's been good for Mike a little bit," said Ohio State assistant John Groce. "It's put a chip on his shoulder and really motivated him to prove to everyone that he can play that position just as well as anybody, and that he can play as important a role as Greg does on our basketball team."
Whether that last part is true is debatable, if only because it's doubtful anybody will play as important a role on any team as Oden will play on Ohio State. He's a star and deserving of everything he gets. That's why NBA teams would be wise to tank as many games as possible, giving them the best opportunity to draft this potential franchise-changer.
Still, that has nothing to do with Conley, who is impressive in his own right, just on a different, more human level. He played seven games at Ohio State before Oden, and he'll play dozens of games at Ohio State long after Oden is gone. And if the skeptics haven't recognized it already, they'll certainly recognize it before everything's over, that Conley is a great player who happens to play with Oden, not a good player just because he plays with Oden.
"Maybe now people can see me as a point guard on this team rather than just Greg Oden's teammate," Conley said. "Hopefully, that's the case."
Definitely, it should be.