MikeCheck: Building toward healthy return, Conley eyes Team USA minicamp with 2020 (Olympic) vision

MEMPHIS – Count Grizzlies' catalyst Mike Conley among the NBA stars attending this week’s Team USA minicamp in Las Vegas as he continues to work his way back from Achilles’ heel surgery.

“My mindset is really just to go out there and, like I always do, pick the brains of some of the best players and coaches in the world these next couple of days,” Conley said as he prepared for Wednesday's arrival in Las Vegas. “I want to learn as much as I can and be around all those guys I know again, be around the game. Just soak it up and be back on the court doing certain things.”

Conley was named among 35 finalists for the U.S. Olympic Men’s Team in January, and hopes to emerge on the 12-man roster that will qualify to compete at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Six months removed from season-ending surgery, Conley aims to make a statement in Las Vegas with his commitment to the USA program and his presence, if not his full participation.

Conley continues to progress through the rehab and conditioning process, and will work out during Team USA practices but won’t compete in full scrimmages or contact drills. The national team’s minicamp practices, meetings and film sessions run through Friday.

Mike Conley

“I won’t be doing much full-contact stuff as far as scrimmages, but I know I’ll be able to do a lot of the non-contact stuff, like I’ve been doing the past few weeks,” Conley said. 

Some high-profile players are not expected to attend this week’s camp. According to recent national reports, LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving have decided not to attend, although they will remain in the USA roster pool. The status of Kawhi Leonard was in question before he was traded last week from San Antonio to Toronto amid prolonged differences with the Spurs and coach Gregg Popovich, who is also head coach of the U.S. national team. On Tuesday, reports out of Boston indicated Gordon Hawyard would skip the Las Vegas minicamp to focus on his training in Boston after he missed last season with ankle surgery.

Conley is eager to take advantage of every opportunity he has to be around a crop of elite players on a USA roster that includes Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, DeMar DeRozan, Paul George, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Kevin Love, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook among others.

Training alongside the top talent in the league is also a chance for Conley to chart his progress from the January heel surgery that ended his 11th NBA season after just 12 games. Conley insisted he’s free of pain or discomfort in his foot and heel for the first time in two years. He moved on from the initial rehab and recovery stage to resume basketball conditioning last month.

The workload continues to increase gradually each week, and both the team and Conley have said he remains on schedule to be a full participant in the late September start of training camp.

“He looks good. He's feeling healthy,” Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff said of Conley, who sat courtside to watch the team’s draft picks and young players in a Las Vegas Summer League game earlier this month. “There’s a bunch of improvement in that foot, so we’re looking forward to it and we expect him to be ready to go when camp starts." 

This week’s return trip to Vegas could extend the momentum Conley has been building.

“We’re looking good and it’s been a good summer with a lot of work,” added Conley, 30. “It’s been slow just because we’re taking the most cautious kind of timeline more than being so aggressive, because we’ve got time. I’m on the court shooting, I’m working out and feeling good. So I’m excited about that and just looking forward to ramping it up as the months progress to camp.”

Mike Conley

Conley offered an example of where his workload stands. Once he was able to reach the stage of on-court workouts, Conley would go through “high-impact, high-intensity” conditioning once or twice a week. As recently as two weeks ago, those sessions increased to three or four days a week.

Gauging how his body responds between those sessions generally dictates the next steps.

“Once I’m able to constantly come back the next day with no soreness and everything is good, I think that I’ll have the green light to be able to do whatever,” Conley said of a potential timeframe to advance to five-on-five scrimmage sessions. “But, like I said, we’ve been taking it slow and, for now, everything has been great. And I haven’t had any issues. No setbacks or nothing.”

The goal is to get back to the level at which Conley played in his 2016-17 career season, when he set personal best marks for scoring, rebounds, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, usage rate and player efficiency rating. That season ended with Conley at his peak, averaging 24.7 points, 7.0 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.6 steals in a six-game playoff series loss to the Spurs. He shot 44.7-percent on threes and neutralize the overall production of an MVP candidate in Leonard.

Literally regaining his footing is essential to Conley reclaiming that form.

These days, it’s all about balancing pace and patience.

Ultimately, Conley has 2020 vision. He’s laying the groundwork now to potentially put himself in position to follow in his father’s Olympic footsteps. Mike Conley Sr. was one of the world’s top track athletes in the 1980s and early 1990s, having won a gold medal in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and a silver in Los Angeles in 1984 – three years before Conley Jr. was born.

Team USA minicamp in Las Vegas is seen as the first official step in preparation for the 2019 FIBA World Cup next summer in China, which is a qualifier for the 2020 Olympic field in Japan.

“That’s the dream,” Conley said. “To compete in an Olympics and do something my father was able to do many times, that would obviously be a dream come true for me. So that’s what coming here now and taking advantage of every opportunity is about this summer. Even if I’m not able to participate fully in this minicamp, it just shows I’m committed to USA Basketball. And if it does come down to it and I’m available on that list to be picked, and my name is called, I’ll be ready.”

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