'Let's go do something special': Mike Conley Jr. is ready to start a new chapter with the Utah Jazz

by Aaron Falk

As the car moved along Salt Lake City’s east side, the man in the back pulled out his cellphone to take a photo of the downtown skyline and the mountains in the background. A few hours earlier, Mike Conley Jr. and his family had touched down in Utah, and right away his 3-year-old son, Myles, asked about the mountains. He wanted to fish and look for deer. Conley’s wife, meanwhile, was envisioning her children on skis, carving through the Utah snow.

“We’re outdoorsy people,” Conley said. “It’s just perfect for us.”

The veteran point guard snapped another photo of the city and smiled. Seventeen days after reports of his trade first surfaced, Conley was finally a member of the Utah Jazz. 

“I’m like a kid again,” he said. “My feelings are like it’s brand new, the first day of school. …. It’s just cool to have both feet planted and finally know this is home.”

After 12 seasons in the NBA, all of them with the Memphis Grizzlies, Conley has officially begun a new chapter. The 31-year-old arrived in Utah this week, brimming with hope and optimism about his fit with his new city and team.

“Winning a championship is everybody’s goal,” he said. “It’s a realistic goal with the group of guys we have here and the coaching staff and the organization. It’s something that’s going to have to start with us working from Day 1.”

 

Conley was at the NBA Awards last month in Los Angeles, where he received the league’s Sportsmanship and Teammate of the Year honors. He thanked his Grizzlies teammates and the city of Memphis, and then he closed with a shout-out.

“Utah, I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “Let’s go do something special.”

Conley has wasted little time getting started. He’s watched old game film to start looking at Jazz coach Quin Snyder’s schemes.

“I told him about certain plays that I hated guarding,” Conley said. “You know how Quin is, he got right into it and started going down the laundry list of plays. It’s going to be a thrill to be around a guy like that.”

At the NBA Awards, he met with Jazz center Rudy Gobert, and the two have also exchanged text messages over the past few weeks.

“He’s one of a few guys who can go up and get my floater,” Conley said. “I’m glad I won’t have to play against him anymore.”

He also spent two days in L.A. working out with Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell.

“I was just trying to keep up with him those couple of days,” Conley said with a laugh. “I was just getting into it, getting back on the court. He was running circles around me a little bit.”

Mitchell was eager to pick Conley’s brain, and the veteran had a few lessons to teach him during their two days together.

“Just being around him, seeing the demeanor that he carries, his athletic abilities, all those things are there,” Conley said. “His skill set can grow even more, and that’s the exciting part. He’s a young superstar who’s willing to learn.”

Conley has reached out to point guard Danté Exum, too. Conley wore No. 11 in Memphis, a nod to his October 11 birthday. But the veteran wanted to let Utah’s No. 11 know he wasn’t interested in stealing his number. Instead, Conley will wear No. 10, his birth month and the number his father once wore.

“No, I texted Danté immediately, ‘Hey, man, happy to be here. Don’t worry. I’m not coming for your number. Stress less, no stress,’” Conley said. “I’m going to change it and start something new.”

 

The Jazz and Conley think they can be a perfect fit on the court, too.

“The players all kind of fit the same mold, which is very much the way I like to play, the type of people I like to be around,” Conley said. “Donovan is a star in the league. Rudy is a star in the league. Joe, Bogey (Bojan Bogdanovic), guys that know what they’re doing and have been around a while and made their mark. It’s going to be a lot of fun to take the court and battle with those guys every night.”

And Conley’s elite skills could take Utah to the next level. In addition to being a steady presence at the point guard position (he averaged 6.4 assists to 1.9 turnovers last season) who has the vision and an elite floater to help him thrive in the pick-and-roll, he’s also a career 37.5 percent shooter from beyond the arc.

“I really think it will be a whole new me,” Conley said. “I’m in a unique situation having these guys around me. With a rim-runner like Rudy Gobert—not a lot of guys can set picks like he does, run to the rim and go get it way above the glass. Having that and all of these shooters around is a different spacing. It’s something I’ve only played with a few times in my career. I’m excited to have that from Day 1. I think you’re going to see a whole other level that I can get to, and we’ll have a chance to benefit from each other.”

 

On Saturday afternoon, Conley toured Salt Lake City, driving through tree-lined streets downtown and up to Capitol Hill, where he took photos and signed autographs for a few surprised Jazz fans.

“I can already tell it’s going to be a special place to play,” he said.

Conley, though, has already played in Utah many times.

As the tour took him past Vivint Smart Home Arena, he recalled all the defeats he had endured there.

“For eight years, I don’t think we won a game here,” he said. “Now I get to be on the other side, instead of having to fight through every minute of the crowd, not being able to breathe. I can’t wait.”

Then Conley headed to the Zions Bank Basketball Campus for his first look at the team’s practice facility. As soon as he walked in the door, he smiled. Conley loves to golf (he had just played in the Bahamas with Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald) and the first thing he saw in the player’s lounge was a golf simulator.

“I know where I’ll be,” he said.

Next, Conley headed to the facility’s locker room.

“Where am I at? Do I get to pick the locker? Think I’ll just take Donovan’s. How about that?” he joked.

Wherever Conley ends up, the veteran figures to play a prominent role.

“I’m not one of those guys that’s going to beat you over the head and just yell at you all day. I know how to talk to people and get across to each person,” he said. “I see myself as an extension of the coach. I see myself as a coach on the court. I’m not afraid to challenge guys. I’m not afraid to put guys in positions to help the team. And I’m not beyond accepting criticism and challenges myself. I think that’s why guys are attracted to wanting to play and be around me. They know I’m all in on winning.”

 

Back in February, Conley was checking his phone a lot. For the first time in his career, the point guard’s name was popping up in trade rumors. Instead, Conley stayed in Memphis while his friend and teammate Marc Gasol was sent to Toronto.

So when Conley’s phone lit up in June with a FaceTime request from Gasol, Conley jumped out of his seat to answer it. Gasol was drenched in champagne, celebrating the Raptors’ NBA championship.

Conley was filled with joy first, then determination.

“It definitely motivated me,” Conley said. “From that day forward, I was like, I want to be doing this next year. It’s a dream of mine that I hope will come true.”

That’s why, when Conley’s phone rang again a few days later with news of his trade to Utah, the veteran point guard quickly found peace.

“It was almost surreal that it happened,” he said. “After that, it sunk in a little bit. I’m going to Utah. I’m going to Salt Lake City. All the possibilities started popping into my head.

“Then I got really excited and anxious. When do I get to go out there? When do I meet the guys? I’m just glad to finally be official and start the journey.”

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