SALT LAKE CITY — In the lead up of the NBA Restart, there was a lot of excitement coming from the Utah Jazz about Mike Conley.
Jazz executive Dennis Lindsey said the Jazz point guard was feeling better than he had in years. Jazz head coach Quin Snyder added there wasn’t a shot Conley could take that he would consider bad. Even Conley, himself, pointed out he had a new comfort level with the team.
But seeing is believing. And Jazz fans are seeing it.
During the NBA restart, Conley is averaging 19.7 points and 5.8 assists; in the last two games he’s shot 46% from the field.
Since Conley's infamous Jazz debut — a 1-for-16 performance in a win over the Thunder — a narrative has formed that Conley has been a disappointment in his first season in Utah. There was some truth to it — he was injured for large portions of the season, took some time to acclimate to the team, and had some bad shooting nights — but still, the talk of him struggling was always overstated. In the last 13 games he played in before the hiatus, for example, Conley averaged 16.5 points and shot 44% from 3-point range.
But his bubble play, even he admits, has been different. Instead of just fitting into the Jazz offense, he’s leading it.
“Really, I'm just really starting to really have fun with it,” Conley said. “I know exactly what's asked of me. I think it is fairly clear and I've had this whole year to learn. I've had the time off to adjust and prepare myself, and now just go out there and play the game I've always played and do what I can for the team. So, (I’m) just having a good time doing it, man. I really do enjoy being out there and just getting back to doing the things I normally do.”
Against Memphis on Wednesday, Conley looked, coincidentally, like the Grizzlies-version of himself — one of the best point guards in the league for a better part of a decade.
In the second quarter Wednesday, Memphis forward Anthony Tolliver switched onto Conley with the shot clock winding down. As soon as the switch happened, Conley hit Tolliver with a crossover to get into the paint. Tolliver could only try to grab his hip to stop him; and when Conley felt that contact, he quickly hit a floater for the and-one.
That was during a 22-1 run for the Jazz that helped flip the game around. Conley was superb in that stretch, handing out five assists including three that ended with Rudy Gobert dunks.
“I mean, I’m just in a clear place,” Conley said. “Back to the game I've always known to play and how I normally play. So, I'm very confident. When I'm shooting shots, it ... I feel like every one's gonna go in — they all feel good. (I’m) trying to get in the paint, make plays for guys. When I have the ball I feel like some good is gonna happen for our team.”
And that confidence has allowed Conley to make an impact on the team off the court, too. Snyder said that as Conley’s comfort level has increased, so too as his leadership. He didn’t come to Utah acting like it was his team. The Jazz had Gobert, they had Donovan Mitchell, they had players that had been there for years. It wasn't his place to take charge. But with time, his voice has grown stronger.
“In order to lead, you have to find a comfort level,” Snyder said. “I think that’s happened with him. That doesn’t kind of come down and land on you, you have to work at that; and sometimes you have to go through some things to learn and get comfortable and figure it out.”
Conley has been one of Utah’s most consistent players in Orlando. He had 20 points and four assists against the Pelicans, he finished with 24 points and eight assists against the Lakers, and he had 23 points and seven assists against the Grizzlies.
“He’s such a good player. He’s one of those guys, it’s a privilege to coach him,” Snyder said. “He can do so many things on the court. His ability to really pick his spots when he’s shooting his 3. He’s so quick. He gets into the lane, whether he’s shooting his floater, he’s got his eyes out to the corner or he’s passing the ball to Rudy upstairs or whatever it is.”
It’s that player Memphis enjoyed for years, and the one Utah is getting in the bubble.
“I just want him to be more and more instinctive and try not to over coach him and screw him up,” Snyder said. “I’m excited for him and, as I said, he’s a terrific player and leader. Again, it’s a privilege to coach him.”