An Analysis regarding our Newest Favorite Future Point Guard of the Future
May 19th, 2009, fate delivered the Memphis Grizzlies the 2nd Pick in the 2009 NBA draft, and the likely selection of Spanish point guard sensation Ricky Rubio. Discussion focused around the acquisition of one Mike Conley, reached fever pitch. After all it only makes sense; the Blazer need a permanent backcourt mate to Brandon Roy, and the playoffs made it clear that the Steve Blake-Stopgap Era had outlived its natural usefulness. With young talent, draft picks, and cap room to spare, the Blazers seemingly have the assets to snap up the now superfluous second year point guard.
But is it the right move? Certainly there are a lot of people who support vigorously entering negotiations for Conely; however, there is not a particularly large voice in opposition towards this measure. It’s not because getting Conley is a decided "no-brainer". More likely, it stems from the lack of ostensible knowledge on the player in question. How many people actively watch Memphis Grizzly games? Sure, his stats Post Allstar break are pretty good for a 21 year old point, but we all know that surface stats belie tangible production. The Zbos, the Starbury’s, the Antoine Walkers of the league all have put up decent stats without helping their teams. Compounding the issue is the age old basketball truism "He puts up stats on a bad team".
My analysis of Conely is going to bisect him into two sectors, one of Theory and the other of Practice/Reality. Theory covers "how Conley should play" while the Reality consists of analysis of how Conley "actually plays". For example, The Theory of Jerryd Bayless would state that although he lacks natural point guard skills he makes a good backcourt compliment to Brandon Roy because he is a good shooter/penetrator, defender, and decent playmaker; reality unfortunately poked a lot of holes in that idea, proving that he is a poor shooter, and could not beat out thoroughly mediocre guards like Sergio Rodriguez and Steve Blake in the rotation.
Built similarly to many of his lithe successful Post-hand check era peers, Mike Conley is rather small and uses his quickness and athleticism to blow past defenders, giving defenses fits because of his explosive first step.
Conley leads or comes in a close second in most categories besides the lane agility drill where he ranked last. Physically he compares very well to smaller point guard peers. Notably he scores high on the Bench press which indicates he has the upper body strength to attack the rim and play through contact at the NBA level, he and Paul are the only two that lifted 185lbs 10 or more times.
Draft Express on his exceptional athleticism.
"Athletically, Mike is as close to a freak as you can get for a point guard prospect. He has an incredibly explosive first step, outstanding lateral quickness, and nice leaping ability for a player who stands only 6’1. It is nice to see a player use all of his athletic abilities to the fullest on both ends of the floor, a rarity by today’s standards in the college game."
Size matters in the NBA. When you are a point guard it’s far easier to see the court and players around you, when you are taller than your defender. However, it’s not the end all be all. Especially with the how rules are currently constructed in the NBA, it pays to be short and quick. Numerous guards have come out with Conley’s size in recent years and have adjusted to the NBA fairly well, *cough* Chris Paul. However, players his size are more prone to injury and have lingering durability concerns (look at TJ Ford). The fact that he missed 29 games with injuries in 2007-2008 certainly doesn’t put those thoughts to rest.
Conley is a potent slasher that can finish at the rim with either hand and uses his quickness and great handle to break down defenders. He is a true floor general and plays with great maturity and patience with the ball in his hands. In college and his first year in the NBA he lacked a steady jumper. In his sophomore campaign he improved his 3pt shooting, hitting a very respectable 40.6% of his triple attempts. He had a 2.48 ast/tov ratio, which is middling for an NBA point guard, Chris Paul, meanwhile had a sterling 3.5 ast/tov at the same age. Playing for the Buckeyes he averaged 6.1asts , and a 2.77 ast/tov ratio, good for 3rd in the country.
Draft Express snippets
"On multiple occasions in this game Conley would weave with the basketball through the lane, going between defenders, crossing the ball over to switch hands, and using his body to shield the ball. Once at the rim, Conley can score with either hand, just as he can proficiently dribble with either, and he scored a variety of lay-ups in the game, the most impressive of which was a reverse lay-up off the glass in transition on which he exhibited tremendous body control…he also hit a right-handed floater from about 10 feet, to go along with his assortment of lay-ups."
"He showed outstanding court vision slicing up the defense at finding the open man, using a wide array of shakes and hesitation moves that allowed him to get inside the paint going either left or right almost whenever he pleased. His decision making was almost impeccable on top of that, dishing out to the open man spotting up on the wing when the situation called for it, or finishing plays himself with a floater or kiss high off the glass with either hand when that solution made more sense."
His shooting percentages after the all star break are good, 46% FG and 43% from 3pt, his lack of free throws drawn (2.5 per game) is troublesome however. A player with his quickness and ball handling skills should definitely be putting up at least 4 free throws a game. His assists per game, at 5.6 (post all star break) is a little low for a guard that supposedly had such talent at getting his teammates involved.
3 Shades of Blue also had the following take…
"Got one vote for most improved. Has a shaky shot (yes still, you can argue all you want otherwise). Has confidence problems. Is quick as lightning. Can make great, heady passes, even if no one on the team can make the shot after the pass. Doesn't turn the ball over too much. Loves to dribble. Alot. In fact, the over-dribbling kills the offense."
Conley has great lateral quickness and is a decent on the ball defender. His great leaping ability and wingspan should translate into the ability to contest the shots of taller defenders. These qualities also allow him to more rebounds than expect for a guard of his size (3.4rbs a game in 2008-2009). Conley also anticipates passing lanes rather well, gathering 2.2stls a game in college. However his size means that larger guards will be able to back him down in the post fairly easily.
"On defense, Conley had another solid game, playing pesky on the ball…He has great hands, and it showed in this game as he deflected several passes, and a couple of them wound up as steals, either for him or a teammate. More so than his hands though, it’s his instincts and knowledge of where to position himself when his man doesn’t have the ball that makes him dangerous. A couple of Conley’s steals came from his anticipation and playing the angles correctly on defense, cutting off passing lanes."
Small guards can become great defensive players, just look at Rajon Rondo (I was very surprised when I found out he was 6’1"). But having size and length are both extremely important to be a great individual defender at the NBA level, players Devin Harris, Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose for example. I feel like on the ball defense is a skill that is harder to learn than others at the elite level. Conley was never especially known for his D in college, so I would not expect him to become elite in the NBA. However, I can see Conley becoming a better than average defender, especially since he got so many steals at his time at Ohio state.
The biggest sticking point that doesn’t need to be discussed, but will, because people pretend to be psychologists aka the WHY IS GREG ODEN IN SUMMER SCHOOL argument
Mike Conley doesn’t want to play with Greg Oden because he fears he will forever be in his shadow.
"When I got on campus I realized a lot of people have the opinion that I was just Greg Oden's high school teammate," Conley said. "That's the way a lot of people see me."
"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."
No? If you play with some from middle school on, travelling from city to city in AAU tournaments, I think you would become close to someone. Basketball is a sport that requires team chemistry, and as we have seen this year with Rudy and Sergio, having teammates that have long been acquainted certainly helps on the court. I think Conley would love to come and play with Oden again.
If we consider his post allstar break numbers as indicative of his true potential and not an aberration, he compares very favorably to some very solid guards. Here are the numbers (from basketball reference.com)
Querying guards between the ages of 21-22 in their second season, between 5’11" and 6’1", who score at least 14ppg and at least 5.5ast/g brings up these players. Knocking it down to 10ppg and 5 asts adds Raymond Felton, Rajon Rondo and Mo Williams to the list.
Fairly elite company. What’s notable here is that Conley draws the lowest number of free throw attempts per game which gives a few impressions. One explanation is that he still may not be used to the quickness and length of NBA defenders, and that he is not able to blow past these defenders the way he did in college.
Alternatively, considering his high three point percentage, defenders must be picking him up at the three point line. With his speed, it would be relatively easy from there to pull up for a mid ranger shot, or drive in for a layup. Maybe this another statistic that reflects Conley’s general lack of confidence on the court ? If he gets consistent minutes and works on his mid range game he could definitely become one of the better offensive point guards in the NBA.
After doing this research I think Conley has quite a bit of untapped potential. He has great athleticism for his position, although he lacks ideal size, many point guards that possess the same physical attributes find success in the NBA. He had very solid numbers in college, especially as a freshman. Guys with a good work ethic, athleticism and solid fundamentals rarely flop in the NBA. He may have been drafted too high because of his great tournament run, but his game definitely has the substance. His weak rookie year can largely be attributed to injury and his adaptation to playing point guard in the NBA (normally a very challenging process) has proceeded very smoothly at the precocious age of 21.
Furthermore, considering his perceived weakness was 3 point shooting, his 43% post AS shooting average is very comforting news. He definitely has not remained stagnant the way his oft compared peer, Raymond Felton has. If he is in an environment that allows him to play to his strengths, which involve playing with the ball in his hands, pick and roll, drive and dish, he could become a solid 2nd tier point guard in this league. The same caliber of player as guys like Mo Williams, Jose Calderon or Jameer Nelson.
My only reservations with trading for Conley remain in his size and the resulting injury concerns; I still don’t like small point guards not named Chris Paul. However, the opportunities to grab, young, rapidly improving point guards are rare, and in this case it seems to be worth the risk.
Btw I emailed the dudes that write at 3 shades of Blue, if I hear back from them i'll post their comments here.