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The old man up to new tricks? Why Mike Conley's assists numbers are at a career high


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WASHINGTON DC — Mike Conley stepped into a weight room and could suddenly hear himself think again. The music echoing off the walls of a gym at Georgetown University had been a bit too much.

"I sound like an old man; it's too loud," he said with a smile.

In NBA years, that's exactly what he is: an old man.

Conley turned 35 last month and is now playing alongside guys who are as many as 14 years his junior.

Through his many seasons, Conley has seen the league get longer, taller and more athletic. Heck, there wasn't even a guard under 6-foot-4 taken in the first round of last year's draft.

So are the 6-foot-1 floor generals, like Conley, soon to be relics of the past?

Maybe, but Conley's making sure that time hasn't come yet.

In his 16th year of his decorated career, Conley is showing that he has plenty of basketball life left. This season, he is averaging a career-high 8.0 assists, leading the Jazz to a surprising 10-3 start. In the last four games — all Utah wins — he's had three with double-digit assist numbers.

Conley has long been known as a pick-and-roll master and an elite game manager, so what's caused his assists to have an uptick this season?

"Really, it's the opportunity," he said. "It's the team around you, the players around you, the scheme the coach wants to run, having the ball in your hands. It's like a lot of that all kind of coming together."

When he was in Memphis, the Grizzlies used Marc Gasol's playmaking ability to play out of the post, and relied on Conley's isolation game. In his first few years in Utah, Conley played off the ball because Donovan Mitchell was so dynamic.

"This is the first year, probably, in my career I've had the ball and had this kind of unit around me to explore that." Conley said.

The old man isn't learning new tricks; he's just showing them off in ways he hasn't been able to do before.

Malik Beasley, who hit two 3-pointers following passes from Conley late in the fourth quarter Wednesday, remembers defending a different type of guard when he played against him. Conley was a crafty guard that could pull up from three and hit a floater with both hands — and Beasley recalls him looking for those shots.

"He would always be aggressive," Beasley said.

Conley once averaged 16 shots per game; he's at 9.4 shots this season.

"He's done a great job of being a true point guard and leading us as a group," Beasley said.

Jazz coach Will Hardy has designed a system based on ball movement and unselfishness. The Jazz are stacked full of players that can make shots and make plays — Lauri Markkanen, Kelly Olynyk, Jordan Clarkson, Collin Sexton, Beasley, etc. Utah might not have the top-level talent of a Luka Doncic or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but they've proven their collection of parts can perform at a very high level.

It's been Conley who has helped personify Hardy's vision.

He doesn't need to shoot a floater when he can find Markkanen on a drive; he doesn't need to pull up when he can swing the ball to Beasley for an open 3-pointer. Why would he try to contend with a big at the rim when he can draw them close and hit Jarred Vanderbilt for an alley-oop?

"He's a really smart player," Markkanen said. "He knows not just when to pass the basketball but he delivers on target. It's easy to shoot from there, and so he's been doing a great job of being that veteran on the team."

And everyone has followed suit. The Jazz have the second best offense in the league and are averaging 27.7 assists per game. It's a pass-happy offense where swinging the ball often often feels contagious.

Utah's fun story to start the season is looking more and more legitimate by the day.

"They've bought into being a team," Hardy said. "They've really bought into how we're asking them to play and the situations we're putting them in. I think it's really just a credit to our guys and their collective IQ and willingness to pass."

Especially Conley's.

His time isn't through just yet.

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