In his Media Day session on Monday, Jazz coach Quin Snyder called Mike Conley “an elite point guard,” but also went to great lengths to reiterate that he needed to observe all the new players operating within the framework of his system in order to have a true gauge of their capabilities and not be relying upon “preconceptions.”
So then, on Wednesday, two days into the team’s 2019 training camp, what had the coach learned of the team’s major offseason acquisition?
“It’s unusual that you trust a player so quickly, but he’s earned that,” Snyder said. “That’s who he is.”
That certainly was the hope going in — from all sides.
Conley spoke on Monday about his intention to try to fit in as seamlessly as possible, noting, “Really, I’m just coming to be myself. I’m not coming to try to be overwhelming or take over the room, ’cause these guys have played together for awhile. Donovan’s turned into a great leader, Joe’s a great leader, Rudy; all these guys lead in different ways, and my particular way might just be a little bit different.”
Asked Wednesday how that acclimation process has been in the early going, Conley replied, “Man, it’s been easy, honestly,” going on to praise Snyder for the system he’d installed, the front office for the roster they have assembled, and his teammates for being so willing to help him fill in the gaps.
Yeah, it seems pretty apparent Conley’s made of that “Jazz DNA,” as the team brass likes to call it.
Conley’s pre-draft acquisition from the Grizzlies was done with specific on-court goals in mind: upgrade the team’s perimeter shooting efficiency, alleviate some of the playmaking and late-clock responsibilities heaped upon new backcourt compatriot Donovan Mitchell, and be able to at least maintain the group’s lofty defensive rating.
Those are all easily quantifiable objectives.
All of those people Conley praised, however, seem to speak of his impact not in statistical breakdowns, but in more ephemeral terms.
Mitchell spoke of “his leadership skills, leadership qualities,” taking almost reverential notice of how Conley “moves at his own pace” and how following that example both on the court and in life in general could make things easier for himself. Leadership was also a word invoked by guard Dante Exum, who got to keep his No. 11 jersey when Conley (who has worn the same number his whole career) went out of his way to make it known he wouldn’t try to usurp it.
After executive vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey recalled how Conley had become a “pied piper” of sorts in recruiting the likes of Ed Davis, Jeff Green, and Emmanuel Mudiay to sign with the organization in free agency, general manager Justin Zanik explained some of the underlying dynamics behind the situation.
“The ‘pied piper’ part, that draws people here, but the reason guys like to follow him is because they like playing with him and they like being around him,” Zanik said. “Mike’s demeanor, his experience — he’s positive the whole time. Literally just the guys being in the practice facility with him on this journey for this season is going to help any number of ways — some of them tangible, some of them intangible.”
Snyder was similarly focused on the guard’s more abstract qualities.
“He’s got a presence. And that manifests itself in taking big shots, making two free throws at the end of practice so his teammates don’t have to run, defensively,” Snyder said. “Saying he’s a smart player sells him short. Being smart is not just understanding coverages and things like that, it’s understanding people, his teammates, knowing what guys need.”
For his part, Conley is mostly just focused right now on getting to know his new teammates (he called Rudy Gobert “a big, big dude, man” and pointed out “I’ve probably thrown more lobs in the last two days than I have in a long time”) while also trying to bridge the gap between team newbie and grizzled vet.
On the one hand, he spoke of the momentary terror of being unexpectedly called upon by Snyder to answer a question about Utah’s principles of transition defense and the relief he felt at stumbling into the correct answer. On the other hand, he relayed an anecdote about how his copious film study from his time in Memphis had made him somewhat familiar already with some of the Jazz’s specific schemes.
“They were doing an action today and I was like, ‘You tried to do that to me last year; it didn’t work. What do we do if we play somebody who’s gonna take advantage of that?’” Conley recalled. “And they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, here’s how we’re gonna adjust to it’ and yada, yada. It’s just really cool to interject myself in it now as a Utah Jazz [member] and see the different ways we’re gonna play.
“I just wanted to come in and be who I am, and hope that’s good enough,” he added. “And so far, that’s working.”