Jazz move point guard Mike Conley back into starting lineup

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (10) scores as the Utah Jazz host the Houston Rockets, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020.

Portland, Ore. • Before it was announced that Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell had been named All-Star Game reserves, each mentioned that while such an honor would be nice, it ultimately could not compare to competing for an NBA championship.

On Saturday night, the Jazz made a move they hope will bring them closer to that latter goal.

No, not that kind of move.

Whether the team’s front office decides to tweak the roster with a deal before the upcoming trade deadline or not remains to be seen; but at the Moda Center against the Blazers, they decided to at least tweak the starting lineup, moving point guard Mike Conley back in amongst the first five, while bringing Royce O’’Neale off the bench.

“You want to be able to put players in the situations that allow them to be successful,” coach Quin Snyder said. “And sometimes that means someone adjusting, sometimes it means finding a comfort level for them, and that changes throughout the course of the year.”

Conley noted that while he learned a lot from his recent role coming off the bench while working his way back from a hamstring injury, being out on the court for the opening tip does bring with it a certain level of familiarity.

“It’s obviously what I’ve been comfortable with the last 10 or 11 years, just knowing when you’re going in, when you’re coming out of the game, just getting a comfort level as far as that’s concerned because you can affect the game at certain points knowing that you’re gonna come back or finish the game,” he said. “It’s just time for me to get back to doing what I do, and I’m excited for it.”

It’s been a difficult debut season for Conley with the Jazz.

When the team traded for him in the lead-up to the 2019 NBA draft, there was a certain expectation that, while his numbers might take a hit now that he was surrounded by such elite offensive weaponry as Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanovic, he would still resemble the guy who put up 21.1 points and 6.4 assists for Memphis last season, and who has hit 3-pointers at a 37.3% clip for his career.

Instead, Conley had some initial difficulty acclimating to an entirely new system, an entirely new group of teammates, and the life changes that come from moving your family across the country. After 12 years of doing things one way, suddenly everything was different, and the results showed.

Going into Saturday’s game, Conley was averaging just 12.6 points and 4.1 assists for the Jazz, while shooting 37.7% from the field. His turnovers are also at a career-worst-tying 2.5 per 36 minutes. Two bouts with the tweaked hamstring, meanwhile, have curtailed his ability to acclimate on the court, as he had missed 20 of the team’s 48 games before taking on the Blazers.

Conley’s coach, though, has been impressed with how he’s handled all the challenges.

“He’s been able to persevere. I know how frustrated he’s been because he’s wanted to play. You hear about someone’s character, and until you go through things with them and you see how they react to adversity, that’s what he’s demonstrated, in my mind,” Snyder said. “The basketball part of it — I’ve said this a bunch — we know who he is. For me, even in a short period of time, he’s someone that you appreciate having the opportunity to coach. I know how his teammates feel about him. His willingness to mold himself — not too many guys are even willing to try to adapt to a new situation like that, and he’s done that at every turn. And then you throw in the fact that he’s had, as I said, the adversity of injury and being out and wanting to play, so I’m just happy that he’s back.”

Snyder was right, of course, about Conley’s teammates, as they expressed excitement for his re-insertion into the lineup. The group’s propensity for unselfishness was also invoked, in that moving O’Neale back to a reserve role — after he’s proven exceedingly effective as a low-usage 3-and-D wing — was expected to cause zero drama in the locker room.

“We’re excited, man. Obviously, he’s been out for awhile and it’s no secret he’s been trying to find his rhythm. He’s been doing a great job of being a great teammate, a great leader, and he’s going to go out there and give us great minutes,” said Mitchell. “The best part about this team is that Royce is even more excited, understanding that Mike is going to come back and provide a spark, and Royce is going to come off the bench and do the same.”

The point guard, meanwhile, is just happy that, after all the struggles, the initial injury and time out, the aborted comeback, the lengthy absence, the rehab, and the patience involved in getting back to full strength, he has yet another chance to show what he can do.

“It’s been a long process, but it’s been needed,” Conley said. “… As I just progressed over the last week or so, the training staff and everybody feels I’m in a good place; I feel like I’ve been in a good place. I feel like, for our team, it’ll be good just to see me back out there again. Just happy to be able to help in any way.”

Conley immediately made his presence felt on the court — hitting 8 of 11 shots (including all three tries beyond the arc) in the first half for a team-high 19 points in just over 15 minutes of play.