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It Took Time For Mike Conley To Find His Stride — But Utah Is Reaping The Benefits

Through most of his 12 seasons in Memphis, Mike Conley Jr. was a true floor general. The Grizzlies, who also featured All-Star big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, ran an offense that relied heavily on post-ups and the pick and roll to create scoring opportunities. It was regularly among the slowest offenses in the league, relying on Conley to initiate.

Despite running an inside-first offense, Conley spent most of his time in Memphis with the ball in his hands. The franchise leader in games played, assists, steals and made 3-pointers was also a top 20 player in touches per game in five of the six seasons from 2013-141 to 2018-19. He averaged 7.6 possessions per game as the ball handler in the pick and roll through his last four seasons with the Grizzlies. 

Then came a trade to Utah.

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Conley struggled to adjust to his new role with the Jazz. He went from being the lone ball handler on the court to being asked to play with multiple players who are capable ball handlers and shooters. Having so many shooters allows the Jazz to run what they refer to as a “flow offense,” which often features four shooters spread around the 3-point line with a post player, typically Rudy Gobert, in the paint. After Conley averaged 83.2 touches per game during his last season in Memphis, he averaged just 65.2 per game in his first year in Utah.

Through the first five months of the 2019-20 season, Conley was averaging only 13.5 points while shooting under 40 percent from the field and 36.1 percent from the 3-point line. In that time period, his 1.1 net rating ranked 13th on the team. The veteran guard also battled a hamstring injury throughout most of December and January. Nothing seemed to be going right.

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“I don’t even know when I’m going to have the ball,” Conley said in an interview with Sports Illustrated last season. “In Memphis, I always had the ball. So it’s just a change of my role and, and I’m OK with that, but it was hard.”

But by March, he had started to find his rhythm. That carried over into the NBA bubble and postseason: From March through the regular season of the playoffs, Conley averaged 17.3 points per game and shot 45.1 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from deep. He also raised his assists average by over a full assist per game.

Conley brought that form into this year, putting together arguably his most effective season to date and finally earning his first NBA All-Star selection. On a Jazz team that returned the majority of its players from last season, he has made the biggest improvement of all. After ranking outside the top 100 players in plus/minus per game last year, he has the highest plus/minus this season.2 He’s tied with Paul George for the fourth-best overall RAPTOR rating in the league, trailing just Nikola Jokić, Joel Embiid and Kawhi Leonard.

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Despite averaging the most 3-point attempts of his career, Conley is on pace to finish with his best shooting percentage from behind the arc. His 44.8 percent shooting from the field is the third-highest field-goal percentage of his career. He also has the highest effective field goal percentage of his career, at 55.7 percent, and the second-best true shooting percentage, at 59 percent. 

In addition to stepping up offensively for the team, Conley has also made strides on defense. After a below-average showing last year that carried a defensive RAPTOR rating of -1.6, Conley is sixth in the league this season with a +4.7 rating — outshining his +3.1 rating on offense. He is the only guard to rank among the top seven defensive players in the league this season. 

The veteran has been a menace to opposing shooters all year, with the 10th-best defended field-goal percentage (40.4 percent) among guards who have appeared in at least 25 games. His 100.7 defensive rating is also second-best among guards who have appeared in at least 25 games and average at least 10 minutes per game. 

With Conley fully integrated into the team, the Jazz are a true championship contender: The team sits atop the Western Conference, leading the Phoenix Suns by three games. It may have taken him a little time, but the floor general has found his stride in his new role.

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  1. The first year for which NBA Advanced Stats has data on touches.

  2. Among players who appeared in at least 20 games.

Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.