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Signed for Potential, Mike Conley Confident He'll Grow Into Contract

Nov 8, 2010 – 7:30 PM
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Sam Amick

Sam Amick %BloggerTitle%

Mike ConleyMike Conley is no Rajon Rondo. Just ask one of his teammates.

That's precisely what I did on Saturday, sidling with Memphis' O.J. Mayo to talk about the game's best floor leaders. The Grizzlies shooting guard was waxing poetic on the topic, spinning off of a recent TNT segment in which Kenny Smith ranked the league's best point men. Sure enough, the name of the fourth-year player who recently signed a five-year, $40 million extension for the same team Mayo plays on never came up.

"If I had to choose one to play with, I think it would be (Boston's) Rajon Rondo, just because he gets guys the ball in the right spots," Mayo explained when asked to name the best in the league. "Any scorer or shooter or big man would love to play with a point guard like that."

Conley wasn't around at the moment, of course, not that it would have mattered if he was. The fact of the matter -- one that even Conley knows -- is that the size of his new paycheck far outweighs the size of his reputation.

His new deal, worth up to $45 million with hard-to-reach incentives, was roundly criticized in nearly every NBA peanut gallery that exists, with memories of his underwhelming play during his first three seasons leading so many to wonder why he was given such generous long-term security at a time when most of his colleagues are sweating with every thought of a looming lockout. The furor was sparked mostly because of the context, as Conley became one of the select few lottery picks of the 2007 draft class to receive such extensions.

He joined Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, Atlanta's Al Horford and Chicago's Joakim Noah in that class, and it just didn't add up that the Grizzlies' brass would consider it a top priority to secure the services of a player who has averaged 11.1 points and 4.8 assists per game with an uninspiring career assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.5. But while Conley will have all season and beyond to prove his naysayers wrong, give him credit now for realizing this: his deal is front-loaded in faith, and it's up to him to earn his money all the way to the back end.

"They believe that I'm the guy who can help get this team where we want to go from the point guard position."
- Mike Conley on
extension with Grizzlies
"This team wants to keep guys together, to keep the same core group of guys together, and we've got to take steps by signing one guy at a time," Conley told FanHouse. "For them to take the step with me and put a lot of trust in me after the past three years I've been with them just shows a lot of faith. They believe that I'm the guy who can help get this team where we want to go from the point guard position."

They also happened to have a franchise centerpiece who didn't want to be the only player who was locked up long-term. While small forward Rudy Gay -- he of the five-year, $82 million deal signed over the summer -- stopped short of saying he told owner Michael Heisley to do the Conley deal, he clearly indicated that Conley's future was a part of his discussions with the team about his own future over the summer. And Gay, without question, endorses this subsequent move.

"It's just me seeing who I'm going to be with in the future," Gay said. "With me having the longest contract (on the Grizzlies), for me to sign a contract I have to know who's going to be with me in the future. They (Grizzlies management) were saying that was Mike and now we're going to see who's next."

Then again, Gay has no reason to complain with the way Memphis has decided to use its checkbook. In hindsight, they spent nearly $20 million more than necessary to sign him this summer after opting against showing this sort of faith in him a year ago during extension talks.

The team reportedly set a hardline offer at approximately $50 million for the proposed five-year deal then, while Gay and his representatives were asking for approximately $65 million. Perhaps Heisley and general manager Chris Wallace saw this as a chance to right the past wrong by signing Conley, although that would be an absurd line of thinking considering the disparity in talents between the two players.

Time will tell if the Grizzlies regret their preemptive approach to their point guard position. He is hardly the only piece left to put in place, as their dynamic frontline of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol is unemployed after this season and Mayo himself will be asking for an extension come summertime as well.

For now, Conley, whose new contract kicks in next season, is doing his best to quiet the critics early on. Through seven games (the Griz host Phoenix on Monday), Conley's scoring (15.6 points per game), assists (8.3) and steals (3.3) are up. But lest you stop there, don't overlook the fact that he can't seem to hit from 3-point range thus far (6-of-23) and is well above his career high of 2.13 in turnovers per game (2.86 to this point).

"This season is the one I feel I'm going to turn that corner and to do it from the first game to the 82nd game or the playoffs," Conley promised. "I focused (in the offseason on) going back to penetrating, getting into the paint and finishing. More than anything, I'd gotten away from that and settled for the outside shot a lot the last couple of years. I've been trying to get in the paint as much as possible, trying to finish out for the big guys and make plays for other guys."

Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins gave a glowing early report, citing Conley's improved defense, increased strength and, as Conley had mentioned, his affinity for being more aggressive. Conley's only 23, too, a factor the Grizzlies figured considered heavily in gauging the arc of his career.

And according to another member of the Grizzlies faithful, there is nothing short of greatness here.

"He's a great point guard," Randolph said. "He works hard, has a great work ethic, is a great professional, a great teammate. He's a player who wants to get better and is learning still. He's not a guy who's cocky or thinks he's got it all. He listens real well. He wants to be the best he can be and help his team out. I think it's a great move."

That much has yet to be determined. But what's clear is this: For better or worse, he's as close to Rondo as they're going to get.

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