Mike Conley’s rough first season with the Utah Jazz set him up for a career-best encore. Here’s how it happened.

Criticism has given way to praise as Jazz point guard has emerged as one of the NBA’s best players this season

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (10) as the Utah Jazz host the Minnesota Timberwolves, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020.

Last year, in the midst of his worst NBA season in a decade, Mike Conley didn’t really hear criticism directly. He could always scroll past Twitter, turn the dial beyond sports talk radio and skip the newspapers.

But he couldn’t help but notice the unusual parade of people checking in on him.

“Being around the game as long as I have been, I didn’t need to hear [the criticism] to know that it was going on,” Conley says now. “You can just feel it in the air. You can feel it. You know how people are approaching you, and talking to you, and asking about how you’re doing.”

“How are you doing here?” isn’t a question Conley gets much anymore — people don’t have to ask.

Buoyed by a litany of quality performances in the NBA’s bubble this summer and a remarkable start to the 2020-21 season, Conley is at the top of his game. The metrics show he’s been one of the most efficient players in the NBA to begin the year, and he’s setting career highs in a number of categories.

And off the court, Conley’s flashing the wide smile, the breezy confidence, and the big heart he’s known for.

“When it clicks, it really clicks,” his head coach, Quin Snyder, says with a laugh.

It wasn’t always clicking.

Before being acquired by the Jazz in a trade just before draft day in 2019, Conley had spent his entire career with the Memphis Grizzlies, becoming a legend with the club. He’s the franchise’s all-time leader in games, points, assists, steals, 3-pointers and offensive win shares.

That success meant there was no doubt as to Conley’s role every night — he was the man with the ball in his hands. Working in combination with big man Marc Gasol for 10 seasons, they became the most consistent two-man game in the league. The Grizzlies just gave the ball to Memphis Mike and Marc and let them do their thing, a cavalcade of pick and pops, dribble handoffs, high-low seals and general chemistry.

But Utah acquired him to play a different role. He’d never played with a scorer anywhere near as good as Donovan Mitchell — the closest is probably Rudy Gay. Nor had he played with a shooter as efficient and frequent as Bojan Bogdanovic. And he’d never played with a big anything like Rudy Gobert, who doesn’t have the ball skills that Gasol does but is wildly effective as a rolling dunker.

After a decade of earning his Ph.D. in one style of basketball, he’d have to go back to college to get a second degree.

“I spent a lot of time in the corners, in the wings, stuff like that. It was more time than I was used to, and trying to find ways to be effective was tough,” Conley said, looking back. “I knew I’m still the same player, I’m still the guy that the Jazz brought me over here to be. Unfortunately, I was trying to figure it out in front of the whole fan base, the whole country.”

Conley’s worst night came on opening day — a 1-of-16 shooting performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder that turned the hope of a sparkling debut on its head. “That was probably one of the more frustrating games I’ve ever had,” Conley said. “It was my first opportunity on a different team that had such great expectations coming in. I was very, very excited to go out there with my new teammates and I just wasn’t performing well. Everybody likes to have that first game shock the world.”

It did, but not in the way Conley had hoped. That game wasn’t alone, though: For the first few months, he really struggled. A 1-point game in Phoenix, 2-of-10 nights in both L.A. and Milwaukee were key. Then, hamstring issues struck Conley in December and the first half of January, and as the Jazz faced an easy slate of Eastern Conference opponents, they went on a run without him.

He started to appear on “biggest disappointment” lists, and fans began to believe the trade was a mistake.

A little drama — and a turning point

On a minutes restriction upon his return, Conley was forced to come off the bench. And there, for the first time, he felt a turning point.

“We were playing Indiana or one of those games at home, and I just started coming out and being just super aggressive,” Conley said. “Cause I know I’m not going to play that many minutes, I just was giving everything I have for that time I was out there.”

“I’ve always been known to be aggressive and make plays. I didn’t want to wait and, you know, just wait for Don or Rudy or Bojan to do something. I had to take it by myself and do something,” he continued. “That time when I was still on the bench to start that hamstring recovery was was vital.”

As Conley’s minute restriction eased, he naturally moved from bench to the starting lineup. But the Jazz were facing tougher opponents now, and his team faced a rough patch. They began a 4-9 stretch with Conley out of the starting five, but continued it as he worked his way back. By the time the Jazz were slated to play the Boston Celtics on Feb. 26, the coaching staff was convinced something needed to change.

At that morning’s shootaround, Snyder told Conley that he’d be coming off the bench again that night, this time by coach’s decision.

“Well, we had talked about it. He had talked about after shootaround the possibility of just going by matchups, the options that we could have,” Conley remembered. “And he decided, ‘Hey, we’re going tonight to try to take you off the bench and play you with this group.’ I was like, ‘All right, cool, I’ll be ready regardless.”

But word leaked that the switch had been made. After it was reported, Snyder changed his mind — it would be Joe Ingles who was benched for Royce O’Neale, not Conley.

“I’m not sure how anything got out, or how it was made public,” Conley said. “I don’t know if it technically official and Quin’s mind — he changes his mind like every five seconds. So, I could have been started and benched and started before you guys even found out.”

Still, it wasn’t welcome attention for Conley.

“I just I handled it as best I could. It happened to be on a nationally televised game and there was a lot of attention towards it, so it was kind of the story,” Conley said. “I’ve been through a lot in my career. And those things, just add to the list, they’re going to make me better and stronger.”

The Jazz didn’t win that night against Boston, but they did win five of the next six with Conley in the starting lineup — one final good stretch that would be snapped by Gobert’s positive coronavirus test, and the suspension of the NBA season.

A return to form

Given the tumultuous first year, his wife, Mary, pregnant, and the difficulties of facing at least two months in NBA quarantine, it would have been understandable if Conley chose to opt out of the league’s bubble. But he didn’t. “Ultimately, my wife understands how much this game means and how much just being able to participate and play for championship means,” Conley said.

He made plans to leave the bubble at the first sign of labor, then be back as soon as possible to go through the league’s return to play protocol. In the end, that meant Conley missed the Jazz’s first two games of the playoffs for the birth of Elijah, returning for Game 3.

And he was masterful. In his first game back after 10 days off the court, Conley scored 27 points on 9-of-13 shooting in a Jazz blowout win. In Game 4, he nearly repeated his stellar performance, scoring 26 points on 8-of-13 shooting.

Famously, the Jazz went on to lose the next three games and the series. Conley played well, but in Game 7, his final buzzer-beating attempt rimmed out, and the Jazz were sent home.

As disappointing as the defeat was, the three wins represented a proof of concept for the Jazz — they could win against quality opposition with Conley in the starting lineup, playing a big role.

Snyder, always the tinkerer, used the offseason to make adjustments to how his team played. In particular, after their success in the bubble, he wanted to give more pace and more freedom to his starting backcourt of Conley and Mitchell.

Most of all, he wanted Conley to feel comfortable in taking the reins — just as he did for most of his career in Memphis, just as he did in briefly coming off the bench in his first season. The adjustment has meant Conley’s touches and time of possession are both up in the 2020-21 season.

“I kid him about Peyton Manning because he likes the Colts,” Snyder said. Like Manning, Conley “can audible all he wants as far as I’m concerned. I trust him and have a lot of faith in his ability to make plays for other people.”

Conley appreciates the faith. This season, “I’ve had the ball a lot more than I initially started with. I think that’s allowed me to get into a really, really good rhythm and basically do what I’m here to do,” he said. “And that’s to get JC [Jordan Clarkson] going, get Bojan going, make sure Don’s going, be aggressive when I can and get big fella the ball.”

Reaching new heights

Placing Conley in the floor general role is working. So far, he’s averaging 7.5 assists per 36 minutes this season, even higher than his Memphis days. After an adjustment year, he’s learning how to use his talented teammates better than ever before — and those teammates have been adept at knocking down shots.

In particular, his chemistry with Gobert has improved most. Conley always was known as a patient player, but Gobert’s unique skillset means slowing down even further to give the big man time to get to the rim.

“He was playing with Marc for many, many years and we’re two totally different players,” Gobert said. “Being able to play with somebody like me, I think takes some adjustments.”

Said Conley: “I always thought I was patient and made good reads and good decisions, but I still had times I want to just get to the rim and get up on the rim, get to the floater and all that stuff. But now I find myself, you know, taking two or three extra dribbles and pump-faking, jump stopping and, you know, just doing all these different things to get Rudy time to roll and put pressure on the rim.”

One of those delay tactics is the pass-fake, a play that Joe Ingles has mastered in his time running the pick and roll with Gobert and teammate Derrick Favors. Conley has made his teammates yelp in delight when pulling the trick out this season — when Conley pulled it to freeze Karl-Anthony Towns in the first quarter against Minnesota in December, even the staid Ingles raised both hands in celebration.

“It’s tough, but I’ve done it a few times now. I literally learned it from Joe. It’s something I’m still working on, still trying to figure out,” Conley said, but added that his pass fake has an advantage over Ingles’. “I can go both ways with my fake. I don’t know about him yet.”

Conley also notes that the extra time in the paint causes opponents to naturally sink toward him, giving him better opportunities for kickouts to Mitchell, Bogdanovic, O’Neale, or Clarkson for 3s.

Conley is also being more aggressive from deep himself. For the first time in his career, more than half of his shots are 3s, many of them pull-ups in transition or coming off of Gobert’s screens in the pick and roll. And when asked whether he wanted Conley to take those shots, Snyder said Conley’s green light was more of a “green sun” — his coach knows that 41% 3-point shooting is efficient offense.

Finally, he’s throwing himself into the defensive and rebounding aspects of his game. It might not be what he’s known for, but it’s another way Conley can provide value to the Jazz. His rebounding rates are at career highs, too, and he’s become the Jazz’s most consistent defensive option against small guards.

As he points out, both rebounds and steals “immediately give those opportunities that I had kind of let go the previous year.” Conley gets the ball in his hands and can go right to work.

A happy Conley

Overall, the results have been extremely impressive. FiveThirtyEight’s Wins Above Replacement stat considers Conley the second-most valuable player in the league this season with 3.2 WAR, behind only Nikola Jokic and his triple-double averages.

If the metrics don’t convince, the eye test might. It’s easy to point to at least three wins the Jazz wouldn’t have gotten without Conley at the helm. “It took a while to get used to it, but you’ve seen what it’s like when he starts to read things and see things,” Mitchell said. “It’s been easy for him and it’s been easier for us.”

Conley’s most proud of his team’s record and place in the Western Conference standings so far, though he cautions that there’s a long way to go in the season. But finally, his time in Utah on the court is living up to his feelings off of it.

“Everybody’s been so kind and gracious to me and my family, and I think that’s what’s the toughest part about last season was,” Conley said. “As bad as it was for me personally on the court, I was enjoying myself so much, being a part of such a great situation with such great people and leadership.”

So no, people aren’t asking Conley “how are you doing here?” as much as they used to. It’s a bit of a relief.

But when they do, this is the answer they get:

“I honestly love it, man. I love the fans, the organization, the team. I love being here. I love Utah.”