By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
Posted Oct 20 2010 2:51PM
If the 2012 Olympics roll around and Mike Conley doesn't happen to be wearing the red-white-and-blue uniform of Team USA, you'd have to figure he could still get a free trip to London by helping out with the archery competition.
By now, Conley has grown accustomed to target practice after lugging around more than his share of bull's-eyes -- usually on his back.
As the Grizzies' youth movement and rebuilding climbs steadily up the ladder, the 22-year-old point guard continues to carry an extra burden. He seems to be the lightning rod for any overall shortcomings of the team, the symbol of as-yet unfulfilled expectations.
"I don't exactly know why," said coach Lionel Hollins. "He has shown what he can do on the floor. We went from 24 wins to 40 wins and he doesn't get any credit for it. He does a good job. Just like all of our young players, they all have to get better. Mike has to be vocal, he has to be more aggressive and he has to play better defense.
"But I can say that about all the young guys on my team. I can go to O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol and list all of the things that they have to improve. But it's Mike that always seems to draw everyone's attention and get singled out."
The added attention likely comes in part from being the No. 4 pick in the 2007 Draft and the era in which Conley is playing. This is, after all, the age of the point guard, where Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Derrick Rose are already established big-time scorers as well as distributors and 2010 top pick John Wall is expected to step right in and make a similar instant impact on the Wizards.
While Conley's has been more of a slow, steady development, he has outlasted the likes of Damon Stoudamire, Juan Carlos Navarro, Kyle Lowry and Javaris Crittenton in Memphis, there has been a constant comparison to other point guard the Grizzlies could have drafted -- Aaron Brooks, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings and Stephen Curry to name a few.
"The mindset these days seems to be that you can't be a good point guard unless you score a lot of points," Hollins said. "I'm not of that mindset. But I do wish for Mike to be more aggressive, because his being aggressive helps everybody else."
Part of Conley's early problems was simply not being physically ready to compete and take the pounding/ Another was his lack of shooting skills. He's added 10 pounds of muscle to his frame while raising his scoring average from 9.4 to 12 points a game and his assist output from 4.2 to 5.3. As important, he's raised his 3-point shooting from 33 to 39 percent.
"Mike Conley is going to be a rookie this year, technically, according to his age, his school class," said Hollins. "To be honest, I didn't think he should have come out of college when he did. I wasn't here when he was a rookie, but I felt he was a buck 70 and thin and not very strong. For him to stay in school (at Ohio State) without a Greg Oden, he would have developed a different attitude. But he came out and his mindset has always been, 'I'm a point guard.'
"He played AAU ball with Daequan Cook, Josh McRoberts and Greg Oden and he never looked to score. He didn't have to. But in pros the point guard has to be more aggressive. He has to attack more. He has to get in the paint more and make things happen. He's improved in his strength and I think that he will have a good year."
It appears that it will take a large measure of success by Conley for the Grizzlies to give him a contract extension. He will earn $4.9 million this season in the last year of his rookie scale contract and the team has shown no sign of being ready to offer him a new deal.
"My focus is me coming out with a chip on my shoulder regardless of whether I'm signed or not," Conley told the Memphis Commericial Appeal. "I'm going to play as if I was somebody working to get a contract and help make this a winning team. If we win and I do my job, then I'll get signed eventually, from whomever."
Until then, the burden will remain on Conley.
"I like to make a comparison with Rajon Rondo when he first came into the league," Hollins said. "Everybody said he was the weak link on the great Boston team that had the Big Three, that they couldn't win a championship with him as their point guard. But they did. Now they can't win without him, period. That's because he elevated himself to that level. That's the challenge Mike Conley faces and I'm sure he can handle it. That's life as a point guard these days."
The job comes with bull's-eye.
1. LEADERSHIP FROM RUDY:
Rudy Gay must translate the lessons learned playing with Team USA and take his game to the next level.
2. STOP SOMEBODY:
The Grizzlies have plenty of guys who can put the ball in the hoop. Now they have to develop an appetite for defense.
3. CONLEY CONTINUES:
Now in his fourth NBA season, Mike Conley must continue making progress as the Grizzlies point guard.
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LAST YEAR: 40-42, 4th in Southwest
FINISH: Missed playoffs
2009-10 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2009-10 Stats|
RUDY GAY, FORWARD
19.6 PPG | 5.9 RPG | 1.48 SPG
He's got to avoid trying to live up to the hype of his $84 million contract and concentrate on being a consistent force every night.
ZACH RANDOLPH, FORWARD
20.8 PPG | 11.7 PPG | 48.8 FG%
All the young players in the Grizzlies lineup rely on him to throw his weight and scoring ability around as an effective low post force.
MARC GASOL, CENTER
14.6 PPG | 9.3 RPG | 58.1 FG%
If the rugged man in the middle becomes a more solid defender, the debate about who's the better Gasol brother will be on.
MIKE CONLEY, GUARD
12 PPG | 5.3 APG | 1.38 SPG
The fourth-year point guard is slowly growing into a quarterback who can get the young team into the playoffs.
O.J. MAYO, GUARD
17.5 PPG | 3.8 RPG | 3 APG
He can fill up the hoop when he wants to and can handle some point when he needs to do.
|Xavier Henry||6-6||220||G||Rookie sharpshooter should be a plus.|
|Hasheem Thabeet||6-7||267||C||Big man is making strides in the middle.|
|Tony Allen||6-4||213||G||Much-needed defensive stopper on wing|
ADDED: Tony Allen, Acie Law
LOST: Ronnie Brewer
RUDY GAY, GUARD
It's easy to put the burden on point guard Mike Conley. But Gay has the big money contract and is coming off a summer playing with Team USA that should help him earn it. He needs to use his athleticism to get rebounds, make steals, make all of the plays that show his teammates they should follow his lead.
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