Mike Conley knows people forgot about him, says Grizzlies primed for rebound year: 'I got that edge back'
Healthy and happy, Memphis' leader tells CBS Sports he's mentally ready, with "everything to prove"
Mike Conley didn't always know he'd be a Memphis Grizzlies icon. On more than one occasion early in his career, Conley had a feeling he was about to be traded. In January of his second season, it was more than a feeling: Conley came off the bench and played 11 minutes in Toronto, then was pulled out of the game and told to go to the locker room. He showered, changed and mentally prepared himself for the next chapter of his career in Milwaukee. The next day, the trade -- which reportedly would have sent Joe Alexander and Ramon Sessions to the Grizzlies -- fell through.
Conley, 31, is now entering his 12th season in Memphis. He knows from experience how quickly things change in the NBA and how close we were to living in a world where the grit-and-grind Grizzlies, as we knew them, never even existed.
"They'd always draft a point guard or draft somebody in that position and I'd have to compete," Conley told CBS Sports. "Every year, I was competing for a position. Nothing was ever really solidified until later in my career. Not until maybe my fifth or sixth year did I feel like oh, I'll be here, this is where I'll be, we've found something with this team and this organization and it was a match-made-in-heaven kind of deal. Up until that point, I just didn't know."
Last season, it was a left heel injury that changed everything. Conley played just 12 games, then could do nothing but watch as coach David Fizdale got fired and the team stumbled toward a 22-60 record, their worst season since Conley was a rookie. This was a dark time, but Conley has emerged energized.
"From my perspective, man, I would say that this year is a rebound year for us," he said. "We feel like we let one year slip away because of injuries and the circumstances of last season. This season is an opportunity to bounce back and get back into the conversation as a playoff team and competing again."
On the phone, Conley discussed Memphis' offseason, the talent of rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. and how he handled what he has called the worst year of his life and career. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.
Mike Conley: I thought our management did a great job of putting together a group of guys that, chemistry-wise, fit each other. We fit a certain type of system that our coach, J.B. Bickerstaff, wants to implement. We have a defensive mindset. There's a lot of high-basketball-IQ guys that fit well for what we're trying to do. We're excited about that.
CBS: What have you seen from Jaren Jackson early on?
MC: Man, I've seen a lot of very good things, and the crazy part about it is he's so raw, young and talented that he has so much more room to improve, but even at the state that he's in now he's a very good big man in the league. So it's a very exciting time for, I think, all Grizzlies fans to have a guy like Jaren Jackson, who, you know, the sky is the limit for him and his capabilities and what he can do defensively. And offensively, he just keeps improving as we get further and further along in the preseason. Now we're excited to see him develop over the next year.
CBS: How do you think he can help this team this year?
MC: I think coming into his rookie year he's just going to have to dominate his role, which will be a guy that we feel can stretch the floor with his shooting ability, but not only that, just create havoc on the offensive rebounds and when he gets opportunities in the post, in mismatches, really take advantage of it right away and get to his sweet spots. But, mainly, we want him to be ready defensively. We feel like mentally he's ahead of the curve. He can guard all positions. Very smart defender. Picks up on things very quickly. That's the end of the floor that I think he will be most used and most counted on in his early career.
CBS: Knowing Marc Gasol like you do, how tough was last year for him?
MC: I know last year had to be one of the toughest years he's had in his career, just from the standpoint of him not having me by his side, somebody he's played 10 years with. And, you know, different situations with so many people in and out of the lineup, and him having to kind of be thrown into a leadership role that he might not necessarily be ready for without myself or Chandler [Parsons] or anybody else to help him kind of hold that weight -- there was just a lot put on his plate beyond just what's on the floor. I know that it was hard for him, and I think he used that ultimately as a learning experience. He came back even better this offseason. He came back ready to go, physically, mentally and as a leader for this team.
CBS: I've seen stories about you being off the ball sometimes with guys like Garrett and Kyle able to create, too. Just to be clear, should people expect you to be just as aggressive as you were before the injury when the ball is in your hands?
MC: Yeah, I think so. I think with the guys we've added, it just adds another playmaker, adds another ballhandler that allows me to get off the ball here and there and use my shooting ability to space the floor for other guys. Whether it's me just resting a few plays and just being a decoy or actually letting somebody make a play for me and I sit in the corner and get an open shot, an open look, all these are possibilities with the guys that we have on our team and the unselfish play that we have. But I'll bet everything that I'll continue to be aggressive whenever I get that ball, just trying to make plays for our team and be aggressive looking to score.
CBS: Last time I spoke with you was right before All-Star weekend in 2017. You were having a career year, we were talking about how much you love coach Fizdale and how the new offense had let you show what you can do. Does that moment in time feel like a million years ago?
MC: Yeah, it sure does, man. It feels like it was a long, long, long time ago. Me thinking right now, I'm really just trying to get that feeling back, that state of mind I was in during that period of time where I felt I was in full control of my game and I was in full control of everything on the court. Right now, I'm just slowly trying to get all that back, trying to get the timing of that back and trying to get that feeling to where I feel that much control when I'm playing in the game.
CBS: What were the low points when you were out with injury?
MC: Man, there were multiple low points last season. I think initially was the day I learned that my best option was to have surgery and that that was the route that we were planning on going. We probably found out a week or so before the rest of the media, the world found out. That day, I just sat in the living room with the lights off, just thinking. Because I had never been in that situation -- as many injuries as I've had, they've all been very small in comparison to having to sit out 70 games.
On top of it, just seeing the snowball effect initially from all that, me not being there for my team, me not being out on the court, us starting very well early on in the season to being a team that ends up in the lottery, it felt like a lot of that was on me. I felt responsible in a huge way. So, throughout the year, it was just struggling with the fact that all this is kind of happening because of me. The whole time. I kind of carried that all through last season. Ultimately, I think what helped me is I even carried it into the offseason, but in a way that it motivated me to get back better than ever and healthier than ever. Because I didn't want to have to feel that feeling again or let my teammates or let the city feel that again.
CBS: Who was helping you get through it and trying to tell you not to blame yourself?
MC: My mother and father, of course, were in my corner. They've been there from Day One and they always would call and check on me and just kind of keep my head in order. Definitely my wife -- she had to deal with me every day and she could see it on my face, she could see how I was acting. I just tried to keep everything in perspective. It definitely helped -- my wife was pregnant at the time, but we also had a 1 ½-year-old at the time. He's now 2, almost 2 ½. Seeing him every day, for those little moments I was with them, everything didn't matter. Basketball didn't matter. What was going on outside of our house didn't matter. It kept me on the straight and narrow line.
CBS: What does this season mean to you personally?
MC: This season means everything to me. Honestly, my teammates can feel it: when I'm practicing, or in the preseason or in training camp, how excited I am to be playing. I almost see it as a blessing that I had this opportunity to sit out, regroup, get myself together and it's almost like a new lease on life as far as an NBA career. It's almost like I'm coming back fresh and I'm coming back mentally healed and just mentally ready and raring, with a fire, with a chip, with everything to prove again. You can easily lose that over a 10-year career. You get so accustomed to doing the same thing over and over again, making the playoffs and being good and all these things and winning games. At some point, you almost need something that kickstarts you again and makes sure that you don't lose that edge. I think I got that edge back just from the season that happened before.
CBS: You were drafted by Memphis when you were 19. You went from not being super popular to being a fan huge favorite, as a team you've had amazing seasons and frustrating ones. How would you describe your relationship with the city after everything?
MC: It is a marriage. We started off young together, there were some bumps in the road, they probably didn't like me as much as I liked the city or the team. But, eventually, we figured it out. We figured it out and now we're inseparable. When I think of Memphis, I think of home. I'm just proud when other people mention the Grizzlies or the city of Memphis, they seem to say my name along with that sentence somewhere along that line. And that is something that is priceless, in my opinion. You can't get that in a lot of other places; if you've played in multiple cities with multiple teams, you might not get that same kind of feeling. I'm just thankful to have had that opportunity to be around here for as long as I have been, and hopefully for many years to come.
CBS: When people say "Mike's best days are behind him" or "he's injury-prone" or "this team should have been blown up," whatever -- you're human, you can't completely block this stuff out -- how do you deal with it and avoid self-doubt creeping in?
MC: You want to stay away from as much of it as you can, but, like you said, you do catch wind of a lot of it through other channels. For me, it's really just concentrating on the here and now. I mentioned earlier how I've never missed time like I did last year, but I guess people will forget about you. I know people forgot about me just in a year, almost like I don't exist anymore. Just the world we live in today, everything is now here and now, right in front of you.
They will say anything. They will say I'm injury-prone, that I've only played this many games, this many games, but up until a year ago I had injuries just like anybody else had injuries. Somebody sprains an ankle, they're out for a week and a half, that happens. I can't help that I play the way that I do. I play aggressive and I got my face broken diving for a ball, my back broken taking a charge, things that are physical parts of the game that not a lot of people do. Not a lot of people risk their bodies, especially at 175 pounds doing it. I take all the jabs, but it's just who I am. I figure that I'm better than those people because I play the way I do and I stick to the way I play. I can't help it. That is what it is. And just continue to just try to prove that, hey, this is me, I'm going to be better than I've ever been. I'll use all the negative as a positive for me and move forward and not let it drag me back and let people tell me what I did one year or two years ago or whatever it was, but let them think about what I'm doing now.
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