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'Adapt or die': Mike Conley discusses his evolution to elite 3-point shooter



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

CLEVELAND — Just about every lowly pick-up player has had a version of this experience: You're warming up before a friendly game when you hit one or two, or maybe even three shots in a row. Suddenly, you think: "I've got to save some for the game."

Maybe there is something to that, after all.

On Friday morning, Mike Conley went around the 3-point line at the Jazz practice facility and hadn't made as many as he'd hoped.

"I didn't shoot the ball really well at shootaround," Conley said.

He saved them for the game.

On Friday, in Utah's win over the Celtics, Conley became just the third player in NBA history to shoot 100% from the 3-point line on at least seven attempts.

Conley went 7 of 7 from behind the arc — not bad for someone who came into the league all those years ago primarily as a penetrator.

"Tonight was different," Conley said.

He's right, it was different. Conley isn't going to shoot 100% from the 3-point line on that many attempts very often (there was a reason it had only been done twice before). Still that doesn't mean it was all a fluke.

He may not have entered the NBA as a shooter, but he's become one.

"It was something I knew coming into the league that it was going to define me as a player," Conley said. "I wasn't always a shooter, I was more in the paint."

Conley saw where the game was headed. The likes of Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, and many more were pushing the game further and further out on the perimeter. If he wanted to stay near an all-NBA level — or even stay relevant — he knew he had to join them.

"I started thinking: I gotta adapt or die in this league," Conley said. "I worked on it very hard."

Summer after summer, Conley was in the gym trying to get a more consistent 3-point shot. He practiced catch-and-shoot and off-the-dribble 3s, all while he pushed his range deeper and deeper.

He saw an early jump — shooting 40% in his second season — but it was on low attempts. That was a sign he still didn't fully trust it. He knew the only thing that would get him there was repetition, both on the practice court and in games. Soon, two attempts per game turned into three, and then to four, and then to five, and then finally to six.

Conley averaged 6.6 3-point attempts last season and is currently taking 5.8 per game this year.

"Getting more opportunities to shoot the ball, having the ball in my hand more as I got older, so confidence built from that," Conley said.

How confident, exactly? Suffice it to say that there was a time on Friday Conley had to fight the urge to turn around as soon as the ball left his hand. He was in such a groove that he didn't need to see it go in the basket because he already knew that's where it was going to end up — or at least he was pretty sure it would. But instead of risking a Nick Young moment, Conley held the follow through.

"I just held my pose and made sure it went in, but, yeah, I was feeling good about that one," he said.

And on plenty more, too.

He pulled up from 30 feet multiple times, including his first two of the night that helped set a tone for the special evening. On those opening looks, he went right around a Rudy Gobert screen, and when he saw some breathing room, he pulled up and fired with his left hand. That's a shot that he wouldn't have considered taking earlier in his career. Now, he can't help but smile whenever it's there.

"It's actually one of my favorite shots going off of Rudy and going off to my right side," Conley said. "I really got good balance going that way, and I've done it so much that I don't really need to look at the rim."

All those reps have paid off in a big way. In a year the whole league seems to be struggling to shoot, Conley is hitting a career-high 47% from 3, which is currently second in the league among qualified players. But even those numbers didn't make Friday's showcase any less surprising.

"I turned the ball over a couple times and that's all I was thinking about," Conley said. "I would make a 3, but I'm still mad about turnovers. I wasn't thinking about the 3s as much. Someone came up and said, 'You're hot hot! Shoot it, shoot it, shoot it."

Good thing he took that advice. After all, he had saved them for the game.

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